Contranyms, pt. 3, more words that contradict themselves

After a brief injection of “-ject” words we return to contranyms, words that have self-contradictory meanings. It turns out some apparent contranyms aren’t really one word with two opposite meanings, but two words that look and sound alike. These are “homographs,” two words with different origins that ended up being pronounced and spelled the same.

For example, “cleave,” meaning ‘to cling to or adhere,’ comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan.

“Cleave,” with the contrary meaning ‘to split or sever (something), esp. along a natural line or grain’ as you might do with a cleaver, comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: “cloven,” which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

Although the bulges revealed by a low-cut dress may seem to cleave together, “cleavage” refers to splitting, of crystals or cells, for example, or colloquially to ‘the cleft between a woman’s breasts as revealed by a low-cut décolletage.’ The first citation the Oxford English Dictionary gives for this meaning comes from Time magazine in 1946: “Low-cut Restoration costumes‥display too much ‘cleavage’ (Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress’ bosom into two distinct sections).” The “Johnston Office” was the common name for the Motion Picture Association of America during the presidency of Eric Johnston, 1945 – 1963.  Well, that’s what some people go to the movies for: cleavers and cleavage.

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3 Responses to Contranyms, pt. 3, more words that contradict themselves

  1. That’s a good way to sum up: cleavers and cleavage. Aside from being euphonious, it says a lot about the taste of the viewing public.

  2. Pingback: Contranyms, pt. 3, more words that contradict themselves | Hold Your Future

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