English can be maddening

Ruth Griffiths

The English language has a bounty of words — a larger vocabulary than any other language — but English speakers have a maddening tendency to load a single word with multiple meanings.

Take this “fine” example. The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (the standard for Canadian Press) entry for “fine” lists 14 adjectives, two adverbs, plus a noun and a verb. We talk about fine art, fine gold, a fine edge, feeling, fine, fine hair and a court fine and mean quite separate things. This condition of a word having several meanings is called polysemy.

“Sound” is another polysemic word. It can mean an audible noise, a state of healthiness (sound mind), an outburst (sound off), inquiry (sound out), a body of water (Nootka Sound), or financial stability (sound economy) among many others.

Sometimes one word sprouts several meanings, but occasionally it is the other way around — similar but quite separate words evolve identical spellings. “Boil” in the sense of heating water and “boil” in the sense of an irruption of the skin are two unrelated words that just happen to be spelled the same way. “Boil,” the verb, is a Middle English word from the French “boillir” and the Latin “bullire. “Boil,” the noun, comes from Old English “byl” and is Germanic in origin.

“Policy” is another example of non-identical word twins.  “Policy” in the sense of a strategy or plan and the “policy” in a life insurance policy are quite different. “Excise,” meaning to cut is distinct in origin from “excise” in the sense of a customs duty.

Sometimes, confusingly, the same word acquires contradictory meanings. This kind of word is called a contronym. “Sanction,” for example, can either signify permission to do something or a measure forbidding it to be done. “Cleave” can mean cut apart or stick together. A sanguine person is either hot headed and blood thirsty or calm and cheerful. Something that is “fast” is either stuck firmly or moving quickly. A door that is bolted is secure, but a horse that has bolted has taken off. If you wind up a meeting you finish it; if you wind up a watch, you start it. Trying one’s best is a good thing, but trying one’s patience is a bad thing. A blunt instrument is dull but a blunt remark is pointed. My research for this column is almost entirely from The Mother Tongue English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson (1990 William Morrow and Co.). They say, “stealing from one source is plagiarism, but stealing from many sources is research.” So being a thief might see me put behind bars, but being a befuddled researcher of the English language might see me propping up the bar. Crazy English.