Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Here’s a little finger exercise. Remember that I’m the teacher, so you must try to do what I ask. Form a circle with the fingers on your left hand by touching the tip of your index finger to the tip of your thumb. Now poke your head through that circle.

If you unsuccessfully tried to fit your head through the small digital circle, you (and almost any reader) thought that the phrase “poke your head” meant that your head was the poker. But if you raised your left hand with the circle of fingers up close to your forehead and poked your right index finger through that circle until it touched your forehead, you realized that the phrase “poke your head” has a second, and opposite, meaning: that the head is the pokee. Such words and compounds are called Janus-faced words (because Janus was a Roman god who looked in two directions) or contronyms (“opposite words”).

Here are two sentences that will solidify your understanding of how contronyms work:

“The moon is VISIBLE tonight.”

“The lights in the old house are always INVISIBLE.”

Although the two capitalized words are opposite in meaning, both can be replaced by the same word — out. When the moon or sun or stars are out, they are visible. When the lights are out, they are invisible.

Here are some more Janus-faced contronyms that show how words wander wondrously and testify to the fact that nothing in the English language is absolute:

  • blow up. to expand; to destroy: a. Let’s blow up the balloon; b. Let’s blow up the enemy’s stronghold.
  • burn. to destroy; to create: a. Let’s burn the evidence. b. Let’s burn a CD.
  • cleave. separate; adhere firmly: a. A strong blow will cleave a plank in two. b. Bits of metal cleave to a magnet.
  • clip. fasten; separate: a. Clip the coupon to the newspaper. b. Clip the coupon from the newspaper. Similarly, trim, dust, dress, bolt.
  • commencement. beginning; concluding ceremony: a. Beautiful weather marked the commencement of spring; b. She was class valedictorian at her high school commencement.
  • critical. opposed; essential. a. Greg is critical of our efforts. b. Greg is critical to our efforts.
  • downhill. easy; unfortunate: a. Once you master the body turn in golf, it’s all downhill from there. b. After he developed COPD, his health went downhill.
  • fast. firmly in one place; rapidly from one place to another: a. The pegs held the tent fast. b. She ran fast.
  • fix. restore, remove part of: a. It’s time to fix the fence. b. It’s time to fix the bull;
  • hold up. support; hinder: a. Please hold up the sagging branch. b. Accidents hold up the flow of traffic.
  • keep up. continue to fall; continue to stay up: a. The farmers hope that the rain will keep up. b. Damocles hoped that the sword above his head would keep up.
  • oversight. careful supervision; neglect: a. The foreman was responsible for the oversight of the project. b. The foreman’s oversight ruined the success of the project.
  • qualified. competent; limited. a. The candidate is completely qualified. b. The dance was a qualified success.
  • sanction. give approval of; censure: a. The NCAA plans to sanction the event. b. Should our country impose a new sanction on North Korea?.
  • stem. to emanate from; to shut off activity: a. The problem stems from a blown fuse. b. We must stem the tide of self-entitlement.
  • take. obtain; offer: a. Professional photographers take good pictures. b. Professional models take good pictures.
  • temper. to soften; to strengthen: a. You must temper your anger with reason; b. Factories temper steel with additives.
  • trip. to tumble; to move nimbly: a. Don’t trip over that sleeping dog; b. Let’s trip the light fantastic.
  • wear. endure through use; decay through use: a. This suit will wear like iron. b. Water can cause mountains to wear.
  • weather. withstand; wear away: a. Strong ships weather storms. b. Strong winds weather rocks.
  • with. alongside; against: a. England fought with France against Germany. b. England fought with France.
  • wind up. start; end: a. I have to wind up my watch. b. Now I have to wind up this discussion of curious and contrary contronyms.

I do hope that you’ve found this column to be above par. That’s a bad thing in golf, but a good thing in most other endeavors.