Kathryn Schulz, Come To Kerala

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Past invitations have been sent to environmentally-oriented illustrators, to entrepreneurial conservation artists, to sandplay free spirits, to wildlife management scientists, and to food prodigies; but not enough attention has been paid, in our invitations, to word specialists. So, moving right along, Kathryn please be our guest. We would love to host you here and/or here and/or here.

We have not read the book in the link above, nor even a review of the book, but we are linking to its homepage because there you will find not only information about her book but also links to the two TED talks given by the author, whose profession is listed as Wrongologist. Catchy titles are not what catch us. Scintillating writing on the meaning of words does. For that, you could not do much better than starting here, which will also justify our invitation, as wordplay appreciators, to one of the best:

What Part of “No, Totally” Don’t You Understand?


Not long ago, I walked into a friend’s kitchen and found her opening one of those evil, impossible-to-breach plastic blister packages with a can opener. This worked, and struck me as brilliant, but I mention it only to illustrate a characteristic that I admire in our species: given almost any entity, we will find a way to use it for something other than its intended purpose. We commandeer cafeteria trays to go sledding, “The Power Broker” to prop open the door, the Internet to look at kittens. We do this with words as well—time was, spam was just Spam—but, lately, we have gone in for a particularly dramatic appropriation. In certain situations, it seems, we have started using “no” to mean “yes.”

Here’s Lena Dunham demonstrating this development, during a conversation with the comedian Marc Maron on his podcast “WTF.” The two are talking about people who reflexively disparage modern art:

MARON: They can look at any painting and go, “Eh.” They can look at a Rothko and go, “Hey, three colors.” And then you want to hit them.
DUNHAM: No, totally.

Dunham is twenty-eight years old, but the “No, totally!” phenomenon is not limited to her generation. It’s not even limited to “No, totally.” I first started noticing it when a fiftysomething acquaintance responded to a question I asked by saying, “Yup! No, very definitely.” That sent me looking for other examples, which turn out to be almost nonexistent in written English but increasingly abundant in speech. In 2001, the journalist Bernard Kalb told the White House correspondent Dana Milbank that it was the job of reporters to thoroughly investigate political candidates, to which Milbank responded, “Oh, no, yes, I agree with you there.” In 2012, Anderson Cooper, talking with the CNN senior political analyst Gloria Borger, referred to Newt Gingrich as “the guy who has come back from the dead multiple times.” Borger’s reply veered toward Molly Bloom terrain: “Yes, no, exactly, exactly, exactly.”

“No, totally.” “No, definitely.” “No, exactly.” “No, yes.” These curious uses turn “no” into a kind of contranym: a word that can function as its own opposite. Out of the million-odd words in the English language, perhaps a hundred have this property. You can seed a field, in which case you are adding seeds, or seed a grape, in which case you are subtracting them. You can be in a fix but find a fix for it. You can alight from a horse to observe a butterfly alighting on a flower.

Such words—also called auto-antonyms, antagonyms, Janus words, and antiologies—can arise for different reasons. Some are just a special kind of homonym; what appears to be one word with two opposite meanings is really two different words with identical spellings and pronunciations. Thus “clip,” meaning “to attach together,” comes from the Anglo-Saxon clyppan, while “clip,” meaning “to cut off,” comes from the Old Norse klippa. Other contranyms arise when nouns becomes verbs. Sometime around 1200 A.D., dust turned into a verb and, as dust will do, went every which way: “to dust” can mean to remove dust, as from a bookshelf, or to add something dusty, as flour to a cake pan or snow to the streets of Brooklyn. Alternatively, a contranym can reverse meanings when it is used as a different part of speech. As a noun, “custom” refers to a behavior that is common to many people. As an adjective, it refers to something designed for just one person.

Occasionally, however, a contranym arises through a process called amelioration, whereby a normally negative word develops a secondary, positive meaning. This phenomenon is particularly common in slang: “bad” becomes good, “wicked” becomes awesome, and “sick” and “ill” become wonderful. (They have been ameliorated: made better.) The use of “no” to mean “yes” appears to be an example of amelioration, but with one important distinction: “no” can’t mean “yes” on its own. Consider a slightly abridged version of Lena Dunham’s conversation about art appreciation:

MARON: And then you want to hit them.

Take away the “totally” and Dunham appears to be rejecting anti-philistine violence. By contrast, you can take away the “no” without doing any evident semantic damage at all…

Read the whole post here.

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