Most bloggers like words, are fascinated by words, enjoy thinking about and playing with words, and want to use the right words. Nerds essentially, poets with an unrequited love, and I fall into that category.
“In time small wedges cleave the hardest oak.” “The Spanish Tragedy,” Thomas Kyd
“That is why a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” Genesis 2:24
Janus words are self-antonyms, and with some thought, we can find quite a few of them. “Cleave” is a bit antiquated. Thomas Kyd penned “The Spanish Tragedy” in Elizabethan times. When did anyone last tell their spouse he cleaved to her? Perhaps you cleaved the firewood with a splitting maul. More likely you split the wood. In modern conversation, allusion to cleavage most often involves immodest dress. Still, we understand the opposite meanings of “joined with” and “split” by their context.
How about the Janus word, “screen?” I’m wonky enough to look forward to watching a screening of “Pawn Sacrifice,” the new Tobey Maguire movie about the Bobby Fischer/Boris Spassky world championship chess match in Iceland. Screen can also mean to hide from view, as in Hillary set up a private server for her emails to screen her communications from oversight and legal inquiry.
Oversight can mean to oversee and supervise, as in the Secretary of State has oversight responsibilities for the security of U.S. diplomatic missions and embassies across the globe. However, if an ambassador in a high risk country like Libya pleads for additional security forces, is ignored, doesn’t get the help he needs, then is murdered along with three other Americans in Benghazi, well, that’s an oversight of a different kind.
“Sanction” can connote approval or condemnation. We can discern its opposite meanings depending upon context to guide us, even within the same sentence. The weak Iran weapons deal with its unpublished side agreements tacitly sanctions Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions by removing all economic sanctions without enforceable inspection provisions, thus freeing up billions of dollars for Iran’s terrorist supporting enterprises.
More? How about “trim,” which can mean “to decorate (add to)” or “to cut away?” “Fast” can mean to move rapidly or to stand motionless and firm. “Weather” can be used to describe wearing away over time or to persist unchanging in the face of adversity. A little thought and you can find others like “left” or “dust.” We don’t ponder these self-opposite words, and our brains adjust without pause to interpret them on the fly.
As I thought of these words, another came to mind that, while not exactly an auto-antonym, can connote, if not opposite meanings, vastly disparate implications for the human experience. Let’s explore the word “sense” in a little more depth.
“And I’m thinking ‘bout how people fall in love in mysterious ways. Maybe just the touch of a hand.” “Thinking Out Loud” Ed Sheeran
Sense can mean hard headed evaluation and everyday common wisdom. “That makes no sense.” Or “Common sense is unfortunately not very common in Washington.” Sense has other inferences connecting us to feelings, intuition and imagination. “He had a sense of foreboding when his new partners stopped their conversation as he entered the room.”
Sense is a basic attribute of sentient beings. We need five senses as our means of learning about our environment. They become increasingly intimate and perhaps more primitive as we first experience them from far to near. We start to see from great distances; with a little help to the far side of the universe. Closer in, we begin to hear – the greater the distance, the louder the stimulus needs to be and the longer it takes for us to sense the disturbance. From explosion to the transcendence of music; the unwelcome intrusion of angry shouting to the whisper of a child with a secret.
Next in comes smell, always particulate, sometimes exhilarating, calming or pleasant, other odors offensive or even frightening. Closer in still come taste and touch, requiring physical contact with that which brings to us the sensation. Sweet and pungent, bitter and delightful, hot and cold, sharp and soft, pleasure and pain.
Within our most intimate relationships, all five senses intensify, and with the most personal of human contact with bodies intertwined, all senses heightened, we become one. Open to passionate sharing of our very selves, at its spiritual core, open to new life – both with each other and in co-creation with God. Not merely, “Let’s go lie down somewheres, baby,”[i] but “I in my innermost desire want our love to bear the fruit of a child, who is a lot like you.” The definition of marriage is an intimacy like no other inscribed in our nature as humans. The vagaries of cultural change can no more redefine marriage at its core than it can redefine our souls.
“What more do you want?”
“The truth,” she said. “For starters.”
We both fell silent for a moment. I said, “It was a hell of a lot easier for us to agree to have sex.”
She drew that big breath back in; her shoulders and chest rose. “Sex is always easier than the truth,” she said. “The Star of Istanbul” Robert Olen Butler
[i] “Coney Island of the Mind” Lawrence Ferlinghetti