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Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Should

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Oct. 5th, 2015 | 08:45 am

I was talking to a friend recently about how English can be rather counter-intuitive at times when it's not your native language. For instance, consider the following Words That Don't Mean What You Think They Should:

  • "invaluable" sounds like it should mean "worthless", but doesn't.
  • "inflammable" is not the opposite of "flammable".
  • "sanction" can be both an approval or a penalty.
  • "awful" and "awesome" are very different qualities.

Any others? Give 'em to me!

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Comments {12}

Transitioning into liminal space

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from: stormdog
date: Oct. 5th, 2015 08:13 am (UTC)
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Invaluable does make intuitive sense from one point of view, though, in that it implies that something cannot be valued because it is of such great importance that any concrete value would fail to capture that importance.

Words are funny things though, aren't they? Have you ever heard the old story about the English monarch who lavished praise on a new cathedral by calling it "Awful, artificial, and amusing?"

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Oct. 5th, 2015 09:19 am (UTC)
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I hadn't, thanks for sharing — that's quite neat!

Interestingly, I observed a similar shift in German a while ago; Wilhelm Busch's Hans Huckebein has the lines "Er zerrt voll roher Lust und Tücke / Der Tante künstliches Gestricke". In contemporary German, "künstlich" means "artificial", with the same potential for negative connotations as in English; "artistic" would be expressed as "kunstvoll" or "künstlerisch". But apparently in Busch's days, "künstlich" meant the same thing.

Edited at 2015-10-05 09:20 am (UTC)

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Aurifer Salavor

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from: aurifer
date: Oct. 8th, 2015 01:41 pm (UTC)
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Nowadays, we seem to use 'artisanal' to describe something made well by a skilled artisan. I guess 'artificial' has literally meant "that which is like something crafted". Focusing on the artisan puts the humanity back in.

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Oct. 8th, 2015 04:57 pm (UTC)
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Ah, yes, good point — and that's a good word, too.

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Alice Dryden

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from: huskyteer
date: Oct. 5th, 2015 11:04 am (UTC)
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There's a similar tale about a book review which used 'this is a terrible book' as high praise, taking 'terrible' in the sense of 'inspiring terror'. I wish I could remember which book!

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Oct. 8th, 2015 05:00 pm (UTC)
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Nice. :)

Terry Pratchett did something similar in Lords and Ladies; near the end of the novel he used a number of different adjectives to describe elves, adjectives that usually carry positive connotations ("fantastic" etc.), but when he explained how they actually applied they were ambivalent at best. I wish I could quote the passage, but I only have the German translation of the book at hand.

Edited at 2015-10-08 05:00 pm (UTC)

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Alice Dryden

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from: huskyteer
date: Oct. 8th, 2015 09:11 pm (UTC)
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That figures. In one of his early works (The Unadulterated Cat, which is very funny if you know cats) he describes cats and dogs as getting on like a house on fire: "Now think what it's actually like in a house on fire".

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Oct. 8th, 2015 09:56 pm (UTC)
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Hah! Yes, that sounds about right.

(Actually reminds me of a tidbit from Spongebob of all shows, too; Squidward's laughing heartily at something that Spongebob did, saying "You're killing me, Spongebob!", before suddenly turning dead serious and saying, in a gravely voice. "You really are.")

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Schnee

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from: schnee
date: Sep. 1st, 2018 11:41 am (UTC)
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A very, very late reply, BTW, but I just remembered a supposed quote of Charles III's, describing St. Paul's cathedral (as it was being built) as "a"musing, awful, and artificial", meaning "amazing, awe-inspiring, and artistic". Interesting how language can change, eh?

(It happened in German as well; in Wilhelm Busch's "Hans Huckebein", there is a line saying "Er zerrt voll roher List und Tücke / der Tante künstliches Gestricke". Same thing: these days "künstlich" exclusively means "artificial", but back then it apparently also meant "artistic". One can still understand what Busch means when reading the poem, but wouldn't think of using the word anymore with that same meaning.)

And the quote from Lords and Ladies is this:

Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
The thing about words is that meanings can twist just like a snake, and if you want to find snakes look for them behind words that have changed their meaning.
No one ever said elves are nice.
Elves are bad.

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Alice Dryden

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from: huskyteer
date: Sep. 2nd, 2018 07:57 pm (UTC)
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Gosh I miss him. Such a way with words (comes from starting off in journalism, I reckon).

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callmemadam

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from: callmemadam
date: Sep. 3rd, 2018 09:23 am (UTC)
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Was it The Spy who Came in from the Cold?

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Alice Dryden

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from: huskyteer
date: Sep. 3rd, 2018 06:01 pm (UTC)
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Yes!

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