In Through the Looking Glass Humpty Dumpty told Alice, “When I use a word…it means just what I choose it to mean.” Communicating with Humpty Dumpty must be like playing Ping Pong in the dark. But have you ever stumbled into the looking-glass world of “contranyms,” words that are their own antonyms?
Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight the behavior of the corporation was sanctioned.” Does that mean, ‘Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression’ or does it mean, ‘Because the agency was inattentive they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default’? “Sanction,” through French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’ can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
“Oversight” is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings. “Oversee,” from Old English ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means ‘supervise,’ which comes from medieval Latin for exactly the same thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’ “Overlook” is trickier. Although now it is usually used to mean the opposite of “oversee,” namely, ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to leave out of consideration, disregard, ignore,’ it has been used and sometimes still is used to mean something similar to “oversee”: ‘to examine, scrutinize, inspect; to peruse, read through, or [ahem!] look over.’
Illustration: John Tenniel