Of Two Minds


{ Of Two Minds }

More than a hundred readers submitted sentences that included contranyms, words with contradictory meanings, used both ways. After chiding me  gently for not noting the contranymish wordplay in the books featuring Amelia Bedelia (who thought undust was a proper antonym for dust), one reader suggested a sentence inspired by Amelia Bedelia Goes Camping: “Let’s pitch the tent under these trees and then pitch our trash in the Dumpster.” Another reminded me of the Revolutionary period declaration, “We must, indeed, all hang together, or more assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Multiple readers composed sentences that incorporated contradictory uses of the words cleave, oversight, and garnish. By far the most popular contranym, however, was sanction, used to mean both “approve” and “penalize” in sentences submitted by a dozen readers. They included, “I cannot sanction any sanction against Cuba.”

One reader sent an impressive use of the same word with three different meanings in a single sentence: “My determination to fast one day a week was held fast by my belief that it would be a fast way to lose weight.” Alas, these varied uses of that word didn’t necessarily contradict one another. This was also true of “Waxing my skis beneath the waxing moon, I find myself waxing poetic.” However, this reader’s addendum—“Not worthy of a tote bag? Well! I am truly nonplussed that it leaves you nonplussed”—strikes me as tote bag worthy. So does “The logger topped a hot chocolate with whipped cream, then topped a tree with his chain saw,” and “The problem was traced to an oversight by the oversight committee.”


{ What’s in a Name? }

Following the Civil War, a Texas rancher named Samuel Maverick was given 400 head of cattle to settle a debt. Maverick didn’t bother to brand the calves that ensued. As they grew, and wandered off his ranch, neighbors began to call any cow without a brand “one of Maverick’s,” then simply “a maverick.” In time, this term came to refer not just to unbranded cattle but to human outliers as well.

Maverick is an eponym: a word inspired by someone’s name. Like many eponyms, it has remained in use long after we’ve forgotten whom it’s based on. Other name-inspired words whose human roots are now a little vague include sandwich, diesel, guillotine, cardigan, leotard, bloomer, martinet, mesmerize, silhouette, shrapnel, and draconian (after a harsh Athenian judge name Draco). We need more eponyms that are based on people we’ve heard of. Perhaps you could create some. An unusually gaudy outfit might be called a gaga. Or, in honor of the serial prevaricator Lance Armstrong, one might say that someone demeaned by lies has been lanced.

What do you think? For an American Scholar tote bag, create an eponym based on a familiar public figure, then define your term.


Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ralph Keyes is the author, most recently, of The Hidden History of Coined Words, which has just been published.


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