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Column: When Positive Is Negative and Other English Language Craziness

By Patricia Chadwick

There is a wise and witty lady who lives in Annapolis, Maryland. Her name is Marion. She has a keen mind, a wicked sense of humor and is proud to let you know that she is ninety years old.

She had recently been exposed to COVID and alerted her family and friends that she would be getting tested, promising to share the results as soon as they were available. While awaiting the out outcome, she quarantined herself and carried on her daily life in solitude, but without missing a beat—the daily newspaper, her favorite television shows, and of course her early evening martini. Not a sniffle, not a scratchy throat, not a headache gave her pause for concern. It’s that healthy living, she thought to herself, as she sipped her cocktail.

Forty-eight hours later, she received an email notice of her test results—she was positive. “Yeah,” she said, and hastened to call her daughter. “Great news,” she exclaimed. “My test is positive.”

“What?” her daughter cried. “Yes,” she reiterated, “I’m fine. I’m positive. I knew I would be.”

“But positive is bad, Mom! It means that you have COVID!” Marion replied, “Well, that’s not positive at all, is it. In my ninety years, I’ve never heard of positive being a terrible thing.”

Over decades of work in the world of finance, I have been long customed to investment returns being described as either positive or negative. Much against my preference on more than a few occasions, I could not convince clients that a negative return on their investment portfolio was, in fact, a positive outcome.

Marion’s conundrum got me thinking about the frequency with which the English language confronts us with contranyms (or as some spell it, contronyms), that is, a single word that has contradictory meanings. Without sufficient contextual language, the reader can come away with an understanding of a passage that is opposite to the intent of the writer.

The contranym that I find most exasperating is the word, “sanction.” Either as a noun or as a verb, it can, and it often does, present a quandary. In the verb form, “sanction” may mean “to authorize,” or it may mean “to penalize.” As a noun, it can be interpreted as either a permission or a punishment. Many a time I have been left unsure which interpretation to apply.

Similarly, the phrase “to throw out” can be interpreted as either discarding or, to the contrary, proposing, as in launching an idea—or a baseball. Then there is the verb “to trim,” frequently used to describe the process of removing excess—perhaps the fat on a rack of lamb, in preparation for roasting, or scissoring off unneeded fabric on a dress that is being made. Contrast that with the magical holiday festivity of trimming the Christmas tree. Starting with a bare conifer, the “trimming” process consists of series of significant additions such as ornaments, lights, icicles, garlands, even strands of caramel popcorn and possibly an angel for the top, to complete the beautifully “trimmed” tree.

A cousin to the contronym is the homophone, a spoken word that sounds like another but has an entirely different meaning. That’s not a problem unless the two meanings are opposites, the issue arising only when the words are heard, not read. The most jarring example—to my ear—is “raze” and “raise.” On more than a few occasions, I’ve heard on the radio, while driving around town, that a building is being raised. I want to object, “Is the building being torn down or is this about new construction?”

Native English speakers, excluding this writer, may be untroubled by such incongruities, but imagine the dilemma they pose for those trying to learn our language. As a writer, I find the lexical richness of the English language to be one of its great joys, its suffusion of synonyms giving us a world of nuance filled with choices. Occasionally though, it’s worth drawing attention to its minor frustrations!

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