March 28, 2014

Words of the Month - Contraphonic Synonyms?

This salamander is inflammable.  He finds the fire perfectly habitable.
        The obvious follow-up from last month’s contronyms - the same word with two opposite meanings - are those sets of words that look like they should mean the opposite but in fact mean the same.  I couldn’t find that there’s any name for such words, I’m sorry to say, but you all know what I mean: flammable/inflammable.
        flammable/inflammable - Inflammable is the older word in English and comes directly from Latin, where the in- prefix in this case actually means “in” (as in “in flames”) rather than “not.”  I don’t know why people started using flammable, some two centuries later, but probably just because inflammable sounds so much like it ought to mean not flammable.  For another century the older inflammable was more common in the US, and the newfangled flammable more common in Britain.  It was during World War II that flammable really became widespread on both sides of the Atlantic.  When the USA joined the war, the Allied leaders asked them to label explosives with “Flammable” so as not to cause confusion - and explosions.

        bone/debone - My dictionary dates bone to the end of the fifteenth century, and debone to 1940-5.  (Bone, by the way, is also a contronym - you can bone a fish subtractively but bone a corset additively.  Pretty versatile to manage to be in both lists, eh?)  Unfortunately I can’t find any explanation of the appearance of debone - Was it clarification for non-native English speakers employed in kitchens and restaurants?  Was it pretentious jargon on the part of cookbook writers?  My own hypothesis is that debone was a way to avoid any suspicion of the indelicate slang meaning of bone, “to have sexual intercourse with,” which was appearing at around the same time.  (Alas, I don’t have any data on the subject, but you can see my blog post on this phenomenon in general.)

        embowel/disembowel - Disembowel is certainly the standard word nowadays for removing innards (not that it’s something people talk about all that much.)  However, it’s the later form, and came about in a funny way.  Embowel came from French in the early sixteenth century, and the em- prefix meant “out,” so it was a perfectly reasonable word.  Meanwhile, English already had the word disbowel meaning the same thing, also perfectly reasonably.  I think you can see where this is going.  For reasons I do not know, speakers decided to do a mash-up, and around 1600 the doubly negative disembowel appeared, and has since effectively taken over the innard-removing duties in the English language.
This one is flammable, and he finds the fire inhabitable.

        habitable/inhabitable - Here’s another case of quirky etymology.  When you can live somewhere, it ought to be habitable, and indeed it was, since the late fourteenth century.  At the same time, inhabitable meant, of course, “not habitable” with the in- prefix meaning “not.”  Nowadays inhabitable means the same as habitable, so how did it change to its opposite?  Simple - it isn’t really the same word at all.  The original inhabitable has become obsolete, while a new word was coined.  Taking the word inhabit meaning “to dwell in” (in which the in- prefix means “in”), people added the -able suffix around 1600 to get, perfectly logically, inhabitable meaning “able to be dwelt in.”

        privation/deprivation - This is a simple one.  The prefix de- in Latin could reverse a verb’s action and make it opposite, as in defrost, derail… or debone.  That’s why we see privation and deprivation and think they look like they ought to be opposites.  But the Latin de- could also be an intensifier, especially in front of verbs with negative meanings to begin with, and that’s what it’s doing here.  Deprivation is utter, complete privation.  Oh, Latin, Latin, Latin.  Why must you confuse us so?

        caregiver/caretaker - My final pair today are fun because they aren’t a matter of a simple prefix.  They’re both relatively new words, caretaker dating from the mid nineteenth century, and originally meaning a steward, or someone who takes care of property and things rather than people.  Perhaps that’s why caregiver appeared around 1975 - to imply a role that was more about human interaction.  The funny thing really is why taking care and giving care are the same.  It probably has to do with care’s troubled origins.  When care meant “sorrow, anxiety, trouble,” it was consistent to take it on someone’s behalf.  As the meaning shifted to “an inclination for, fondness,” and eventually “love,” it seemed more natural to give it.

[Pictures: Salamander (the device of Francis I), woodcut perhaps by Christopher Plantin, from Devises Heroïques by Claude Paradin, 1557 (Image from Glasgow University);
Salamander (printer’s device), woodcut from a book printed by Charles Pesnot, 1567.]

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