Word of the Day

Saturday, September 14, 2019

contranym

[ kon-truh-nim ]

noun

a word that has opposite or nearly opposite meanings, as cleave, meaning "to adhere closely" and "to part or split"; Janus word.

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What is the origin of contranym?

Contranym, “a word that has opposite or nearly opposite meanings,” is a good term to have though trotting it out in certain circles may spark debate about whether it should be spelled contranym (from contra– and –(o)nym), an example of prodelision (loss of an initial vowel), or contronym (from contr(a)– and –onym), an example of elision (loss of a final vowel). Contranyms are also called Janus words (Janus was the Roman god of doorways, beginnings, transitions, and time, and is usually portrayed as having two faces, one looking toward the past, the other toward the future). Some very common, current contranyms (or Janus words) include sanction “to authorize, approve, or allow” and “to penalize, discipline” (the Latin verb sancīre means both “to ratify solemnly, confirm (laws, treaties)” and “to make an offense punishable by law”); the verb cleave “to split, divide” and “to remain faithful to” (cleave derives from two different Old English verbs: cleofian “to adhere, stick” and clēofan “to separate, split”); and oversight “supervision (as by a Congressional committee),” and “omission, mistake.” Contranym entered English in the early 1960s.

how is contranym used?

Sometimes, just to heighten the confusion, the same word ends up with contradictory meanings. This kind of word is called a contronym.

Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue, 1990

“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.

Kathryn Schulz, "What Part of 'No, Totally' Don't You Understand?" The New Yorker, April 7, 2015
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Friday, September 13, 2019

bona fides

[ boh-nah fee-des ]

noun

good faith; absence of fraud or deceit; the state of being exactly as claims or appearances indicate: The bona fides of this contract is open to question.

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What is the origin of bona fides?

The Latin phrase bona fidēs “good faith,” is composed of a singular noun in the nominative case (fidēs “faith”) modified by a singular adjective (bona “good”). The relatively recent sense of bona fides “guarantees of good faith, credentials” (as if fidēs, because of its final s, were a plural noun) is first recorded in 1944. The Latin phrase bonā fidē and the English phrase bona fide also mean “in good faith” (fidē being a singular noun in the ablative case, which is frequently used in Latin in adverbial functions). Bona fide was originally an adverbial phrase but since the late 18th century also used as an adjective, e.g., the legal term bona fide purchaser. Bona fides entered English in the 19th century.

how is bona fides used?

Few things have sent up our food-conscious era quite so accurately (or affectionately) as that first-season “Portlandia” sketch in which a restaurant waiter is given the third degree by concerned patrons over the bona fides of the menu’s locally raised chicken.

Robert Abele, "Review: 'The Biggest Little Farm' is a winning doc about a couple's agricultural dream," Los Angeles Times, May 9, 2019

Of course it took me a little while to establish my bona fides but at last I did—it will seem ironic to you, but while neither side fully believed in my honesty both were exultant at having penetrated the enemy intelligence service.

Lawrence Durrell, Quinx, 1985
Thursday, September 12, 2019

Ciceronian

[ sis-uh-roh-nee-uhn ]

adjective

characterized by melodious language, clarity, and forcefulness of presentation, as in the style of Cicero: Ciceronian invective.

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What is the origin of Ciceronian?

The adjective Ciceronian comes from Latin Cicerōniānus “pertaining to Cicero,” an adjective coined by the Stoic author and philosopher Seneca. The Roman orator, statesman, and man of letters Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 b.c.) made Roman oratory the equal of Greek, especially of Demosthenes, the last great Athenian orator, as Greek rhetoricians themselves admitted. Ancient critics said of the styles of Demosthenes and Cicero that Demosthenes was so lean and spare that nothing could be taken away, that Cicero was so full and ample that nothing could be added. For as long as Latin was the chief cultural language of Western civilization (up to the 18th or 19th century), Cicero in prose (like Vergil in poetry) was held up as a model to be imitated or an idol to be cast down. There are still several million former teenagers who after a martini or two can recite from memory the opening sentence of Cicero’s First Oration Against Catiline from their junior year in high school: Quō ūsque tandem abūtēre, Catilīna, patientiā nostrā? (“How long, Catiline, will you abuse our patience?”) Ciceronian entered English in the second half of the 17th century.

how is Ciceronian used?

… those who could not follow her reasoning were nonetheless able to enjoy her Ciceronian eloquence. “She spoke like an angel,” one of the Frenchmen commented.

Massimo Mazzotti, "From Genius to Witch: The Rise and Fall of a Filosofessa," Los Angeles Review of Books, July 11, 2018

Its rhetoric was powerful, even Ciceronian, I thought, with the grand sweep of its opening line: “Great triumphs and great tragedies can redirect the course of a people’s destiny.”

Willem Marx, "Misinformation intern," Harper's Magazine, August 23, 2019

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