“There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure, ’cause you know sometimes words have two meanings” — “Stairway to Heaven,” Led Zeppelin

When it comes to understanding the meanings of words, sometimes it’s pretty easy — after all, a car is a car and a book is a book. Sometimes it’s a little harder though; “light” can mean something that you turn on to see better, or it can refer to something that’s not heavy. That’s what we’ll look at this time, words that have two (or sometimes more) meanings, namely: Capitonyms, contronyms and homographs.

How about a nice meal in Nice? Public domain image

Let’s start with capitonyms, which are nothing more than words whose pronunciations and meanings are changed when they begin with a capital letter. For example: We reached a concord in Concord, and then had a nice meal in Nice. Or: We gave Job the job of running the mobile food bank in Mobile. How about: Did the Polish butler polish the silver after he finished reading in Reading?

Next up are those confounding contronyms (also called autoantonyms), which are words that have meanings that are opposite of each other. A few examples are: Academic (scholarly or unimportant), critical (essential or disapproving), draw (open or close), wear (long lasting or deteriorate) and off (indicates activity or idleness).

The following incident (of which I’m not proud) gives several good examples of contronyms in action: From the beginning I had reservations about making reservations at that particular restaurant. My instincts were right; the food was lousy, so I paid the check with a bad check and tried to bolt before the maitre d’ could bolt the door, but I was too late. Spying an open window, I left my tablemate behind and left that way. Running as fast as I could, I realized too late that she was being held fast by the burly waiter.

And then there are homographs, which are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings and usually different origins. When such words are used in a sentence, that’s called antanaclasis, which is a fancy way of saying that when a word is repeated its meaning changes, as in, “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana,” and “In America, you can always find a party; in Soviet Russia, Party always find you.”

Two less silly examples are when Benjamin Franklin cautioned his peers, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” and when football coach Vince Lombardi told his players, “If you’re not fired with enthusiasm, you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.”

Jim Witherell of Lewiston is a writer and lover of words whose work includes “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company” and “Ed Muskie: Made in Maine.”


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