Now, what do you mean by that?

Published 9:11 pm Friday, April 23, 2021

“I personally think we developed language because of our deep need to complain.” — Lily Tomlin

ROLLING FORK — Linguists maintain that the English language — especially the dialect of it prevailingly (often sinfully) spoken in the United States — is among the most difficult for non-natives to learn.

It isn’t exactly as bewildering as, say, Mandarin or Finnish, but it is right up there with them, and certainly ranks as the most difficult Romance (derived from Latin) Language to master.

There are any number of reasons for this, among them: English is often illogical, has lots of rules that aren’t really rules at all (“i before e,” etc.), synonyms often don’t really mean quite the same thing after all, both its spelling and grammar can be tricky and there are just lots and lots of idiomatic inconsistencies, a number of which we have examined in this space before, over the years.

And yes, this is coming from a confirmed lexophile and one who once in print compared the act of successful writing to the wooing of a beautiful lady. But I also own a dog that I love very much, and that fact does not preclude me from admitting the all too obvious fact that she occasionally has fleas and has become deaf as a post in her old age.

And so, for those who think this writing gig is a whole lot easier than calibrating a planter or choosing the right alternator for a 2019 F-150 or playing golf, allow me to illustrate yet another linguistic sand trap that complicates such a preconception—contronyms.

And if you are at present asking “what’s a contronym?” the defense will just rest.

Contronyms are actually quite a bit like exactly what they sound as if they might be — words (commonly used ones) which depending upon the context in which they are used, can have opposite or contradictory meanings — little boogers that can get their would-be user in a heap of trouble if he’s not careful.

Let me show you:

• apology can either be a statement of contrition for some other unfortunate word or deed, or it can be the defense of one, as in turn on Fox News and you are apt to hear an apology for some Trumpian misdeed.

• bolt can mean either to secure something or to flee.

• cleave can mean either to cling to someone or to separate something (“meat,” as example).

• dust can mean to add fine particles or to whisk them away and at funerals it constitutes both alpha and omega of good ole Uncle Ned.

• first degree can be either the most severe thing, in the case or a murder charge, or the least severe thing, in the case of a burn. Try to explain that to Liam from Lithuania.

• garnish can be a good thing, furnishing the finishing touch in food preparation, or a bad thing, as with one’s  hard-earned wages.

• give out is one of the more Southern contronyms as it can both mean to provide, distribute, or to stop due to a lack of supply, as in energy, as in “I’m plumb give out.”

• handicap can be both an advantage provided to ensure equality (for you golfers) or a disadvantage that prevents  equal achievement.

• hold up today can mean either to support something or to impede its progression, but in the old West, it also meant to rob something, usually either a stagecoach or a bank.

• left can mean either stuff that is still where you are, or stuff that has departed, as in, “you mean there ain’t no beer left?”

• out can confuse you when just confined to light. It can either mean visible, as stars shining in the night sky or invisible, as in “somebody musta hit a pole again; the lights are out.”

• overlook can be good, as to supervise, or bad, as in neglect or inability to locate.

• put out can either mean to extinguish, as a fire, or to generate, as in electricity. It also has developed