Confusables, Contronyms, and Jane’s Potato Salad

2 Min read

Word Nerd special

Humor and the paraprosdokian

Usage manual rec – The authority on grammar, usage, and style

Essay rec – DFW on assignment to research the above lexicon and the Usage Wars

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The limits of my language means the limits of my world.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

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CONFUSABLES: famous and infamous

This is just in from a friend and fellow word nerd. Please forgive the crass and seemingly unfeeling nature for life’s fellow travellers. I am–as a student of words and writing–amused by human fallibility as well as my own folly.

TEXT: I’m up early, chuckling to myself this morning. Yesterday I was reading an obituary, and the writer misused the word, infamous. “Jane was infamous for her potato salad.” It made me laugh so that I could feel it to the bottom of my belly.

I wrote my friend back that it was the kind of mistake I would make.

TEXT: I believe you’d be less likely than most of the population of the world to misuse words, but I know I do. I thought that the obituary mistake was particularly funny because I believe that they intended the exact opposite… Or … Maybe Jane did make horrible potato salad and the family is happy that they never have to eat that salad again.

Famous means well or widely known. Infamous means to have an exceedingly bad reputation or deserving infamy. Merriam-Webster’s online entry notes that the word, infamous, is commonly confused, with 88,000 searches of the word in a recent month. Infamous is causing or deserving infamy, which is an “evil reputation brought about by something grossly criminal.” Confusables are two words, or more, which are often confused.

As for humor, the “infamous potato saladbrings on a belly laugh because it is a surprise. When reading an obituary with its solemn tone, the misuse goes against expectations. This is the formula for the paraprosdokian (one-liner), for going against what we expect, evident in the famous Groucho Marx line: I would agree with you but then we would both be wrong.

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CONTRONYMS

Words have a way of breaking the bounds of letters and sounds for me. Bear with me here, because others have mentioned this feeling too. If I say a word enough times, then the word begins to lose all meaning. Beware the doors you open on such topics, but since my friend did just that, I decided to share. And then, I prodded her about contronyms.

Her usage of the word infamous was a mere starting point, a stepping stone into the wonderful world of words. Have you considered the word that may mean one thing and its opposite?

You know them and have used them all your life. A common contronym is the word, dust. To dust the cake with sugar. To dust the shelf. Opposite meanings. Fun, right?!

Bryan Garner–lexicographer par excellence–writes that, “A suprising number of words can bear contradictory senses. . . . Typically, context eliminates any real possibility of ambiguity.”* He then lists a half page of delightful examples. Here are three.

Cleave: Shall a man cleave to his wife? To cleave the logs with a hatchet.

Oversight: The committee has oversight over the project. It was an oversight–just a silly oversight.

Trim: She trimmed the dress with lace. Trim your hair.

Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th Ed. p. 218*

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We finished our short text chat.

TEXT: I love it. I use dust for dusting a cake with sugar and dust to dust the floor.

My final note: IK [I know] right. Love love words and syntax. It is the stuff of reason and thought and frankly, humanity.

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FOOTNOTES

*Garner’s Modern English Usage: the Authority on Grammar, Usage, and Style. Fourth Edition. (Oxford University Press, 2016). For me, this is becoming an increasingly valuable desktop reference. I first came across Garner’s work in the FAMOUS David Foster Wallace essay in his essay collection, Consider the Lobster. It ran in Harper’s and you can read it here online.

* Confusables are two words, or more, which are often confused. (Ex: famous / infamous). A contronym is a word which may have two meanings which contradict each other. (Ex: dust)

**David Foster Wallace. Tense Present: Democracy, English and the Wars Over Usage. (Harper’s Magazine, April 2001). This is available in the original and full text in the collection, Consider the Lobster. You have to get the book of course, which is available in most libraries. For Word Nerds, it will be worth your while, especially if you enjoyed the Harper’s version.

Sep 5, 2023

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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