Wednesday, April 29, 2015


(This is the first of a 3 part series on the features of the OED Online. Originally published in a slightly different format in Lexpert).
The magna cum laude of dictionaries


Howard Richler

Alas, because language is in a constant state of flux, a lexicographer’s work is never done. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), replete with 414,825 words was completed in 1928 and ceremonial presentations were made to President Calvin Coolidge and His Majesty King George V. Supplements ensued but not until 1989 did a second edition comprised of twenty volumes appear. According to The Oxford Companion to the English Language, this edition has “21,728 pages and contains some 290,500 main entries, within which there are a further 157,000 combinations and derivatives in bold type (all defined) and a further 169,000 phrases and undefined combinations in bold italic type, totaling 615,500 word forms.”

The pace of change is ever-quickening. In March 2000, the 20 volume OED, plus three volumes of additions, became available online and every word in the OED is being revised. So, 120 years after the first editor of the OED James Murray launched an “appeal for Words for the OED,“ John Simpson, the present chief editor, invited “readers to contribute to the development of the Dictionary by adding to our record of English throughout the world. Everyone can play a part in recording the history of the language and in helping to enhance the OED.” I believe this project represents one of the greatest feats of scholarship ever undertaken and accomplishes for lexicography what the Human Genome Project is doing for biology.

Words, and new senses of existing words, are flooding into the language from all corners of the world. Only a dictionary the size of the OED can adequately capture the true richness of the English language throughout its history, and the developments in

English. By the time the revisions are completed sometime between 2025 and 2030, the English vocabulary will most likely have at least doubled. As a result, there may not even be a print edition as it would require close to fifty volumes to complete it. One reason so many words are being added is because of the lexicographic advancements in the non-British and non-Ameican Englishes, such as African and Asian varieties, whose words are increasingly being recorded in the OED. There is no longer only one English language; rather English is now available in a variety of flavours.

Interestingly, the revision in 2000 began not with the letter “A” but with the letter “M.” I asked John Simpson why this was done and he replied that “the OED editors wanted to start the revision at a point halfway through the dictionary where the style was largely consistent, and to return to the earlier, less consistent areas later.” In any case, by 2010 all words from M to R had been revised and since then this alphabetical format has been abandoned and every three months we now find revised entries across the alphabet. For example, in December 2014 un-PC was added; June 2014 introduced branzino, a term for the European bass or seabass and also the verb Skype; in March 2014, bestie achieved OED validation.

Aside from cataloguing virtually every English word of the last 1000 years, the OED, in its online incarnation, offers a host of useful features for the lexicographically-minded:


In graphic form, timelines are provided that highlight the year wotrds are first recorded in the OED. Hence, the year I was born also featured the arrival of the words cappuccino, cybernetics and transistor whereas 1616, the year Shakespeare expired saw the birth of acquiescent, incidental and Kurd.

Top 1000 Sources

If you guess Shakespeare as the most frequent quoted OED source, you're not far wrong. The Bard, however comes in second and is bested by the London Times (39,884 quotaions versus 33,127). Rounding out the top five are #3, Walter Scott, #4, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London and #5, Encyclopaedia Brittanica. The top North American source is the New York Times at #11 and the Globe and Mail takes Canadian honours at #212. I don't think too many people would guess the Canadian runner-up - The Daily Colonist of Victoria, B.C. at #431.

Historical Thesaurus

The historical thesaurus is a taxonomic classification of the majority of senses in the OED. It can be thought of as a kind of semantic index to the contents of the dictionary. It can be used to navigate around the dictionary by topic, find related terms, and explore the lexical history of a concept or meaning. It is divided in three categories, the External World, the Mind and Society. So for example, if you were researching Clairvoyance, you would click on External World and then to the Supernatural heading, then to Paranormal and finally Clairvoyance where you would find several entries such as “second sight” defined as a supposed power by which occurences in the future or things at a distance are perceived as though they were actually present.”

The feature that I find most useful in the OED is the categories section and in my next two Lexpert articles I will explore some of its dimensions.

Richler's next book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2016.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

(This article appeared originally in a slightly modified form in the April 2015 edition of Lexpert)
                           Expressions we love to hate


                                         Howard Richler

Think outside the box. Like a kid in a candy store. The tip of the iceberg. At the end of the day.

All these expressions are recognized as clichés, and I even though I realize this, I am not above occasionally spicing up my speech or writing with their use. But what exactly is a cliché? Lexicographically this is easy to answer. For example, the first defintion in the OED from 1832 states, “The French name for a stereotype block, a cast...; applied esp. to a metal stereotype of a wood-engraving used to print from.” By the end of the 19th century the sense of “stereotype” was extended to expressions that were reusable. The OED also informs us that when used as an adjective cliché means “stereotyped, hackneyed.”

In the real as opposed to the lexicographic world, however, deciding whether an expression is stereotyped or hackneyed is highly subjective. One person's cliché, may be another a person's idiom or a spouse's favourite Biblical proverb or Shakespearean quote.

Clichés have become an easy target for writers on language. Longman Guide to English Usage describes clichés as “substitutes for independent thinking or writing.” The Canadian Writer's Handbook states that they “are another form of wordiness: they are tired, worn out, all too familiar, and therefore generally contribute little to a sentence.., They are another kind of deadwood that can be edited out of a draft.” Donna Woolfolk Cross in her book Word Abuse is even more censorious: “Clichés don't have to make a great deal of sense. Whether they do or not, people keep using them. A person who wouldn't dream of using someone else's toothbrush will feel not a qualm about using someone else's tired expression.” This position, I believe, is too harsh for several reasons. An expression might be viewed as a cliché in one context but its meaning might be both crystal clear and effective in another. In any case, a cliché may be overused but because it is common it is likely to be understood. Philip Howard, in The State of the Language, writes “Poets and philosophers mint brand new language. The rest of us have to make do with the common currency that passes ceaselessly from hand to eye and mouth to ear. The most overworked cliché is better than an extravagant phrase that does not come off.” Also, clichés are often the most effective way to introduce informality into discussions that require this tone. They also help establish a rapport between writers or speakers whose audience is faced with comprehending a subject that it finds challenging.

And we should not forget that some clichés are overused because they are clever, notwithstanding they are not original. But, of course, they were original at one point and because of their cleverness attracted hordes of imitators. So a cliché is often a victim of its own success, hoist with its own petard. One can imagine an adolescent seeing Hamlet for the first time and when asked his opinion of the play replying that it was just a bunch of clichés from pop songs such as “Cruel To Be Kind” and “Sweets For My Sweet.”

Clichés also serve a purpose when one needs to write quickly with a tight deadline given originality can be a time-consuming process. As such, because journalists are often under extreme time constraints, a great part of journalistic writing is cliché-ridden. Observe this imagined news report: It's not rocket science that for all intents and purposes we've thrown caution to the wind and are at the tipping point of a slippery slope in our battle against climate change unless we change the political landscape. And, at times, clichés are indispensable because the alternative are very long descriptions. Two examples that come to mind in this category are “brain drain” and “sour grapes.”

This is not to say that certain clichés, shouldn't be avoided. For example, some are actually longer than the non-clichéd option. Cases in point: “At the end of the day” can be shortened to “finally”; “at any given time” to “whenever” and “at the present time” to “now.” Clichés can be misapplied at times leading to a possible lack of clarity. Take the expression “best-kept secret.” If you google this phrase along with “Toronto restaurants” you'll get over 200,000 hits. Methinks these particular “best-kept secrets” are rather well-publicized. This expression offers a moment of cognitive befuddlement best avoided by the careful writer. Also, clichés tend to be hyperbolic when the sense being implied is more measured. Such is the case of “Small actions can make a world of difference” spotted at It is unlikely that the difference effected qualifies with the largeness of “worlds.”

My final word: The inventive writer or speaker should avoid clichés like the plague.

Howard's next book Wordplay: Arranged &Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.

Saturday, March 28, 2015



901-Which word doesn't belong? acrobat-act-acute-edge-oxygen

902 Discern the convergent word? farm-saw-soap sacred-disease-function line-panty-band

903-What do these words have in common?cursive- position- tension

904- Discern the convergent word? blue-car-rain rod-red-rack pass-pencil-chasing

905- Name an anagrammatic description of a South American fruit

906- Discern the convergent word? alley-pear-purse bot-ides-hide dog-ranch-bell

907- Name an anagrammatic description of a European wetsuit

908- Discern the convergent word? biter-deep-sprain print-nail-green check-come-country

909-Name an anagrammatic description of an illustration for a Transam

910- Discern the convergent word? duck-or-dove supply-or-side dead-on-pot

911-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that could be a slogan for an anti-acne medication

912- Discern the convergent word? disc-past-east ping-wax-killer in-bit-sex

913-Aside from starting with an A, what do these words have in common? accuse-adios-ague

914- Discern the convergent word? side-see-my bend-replacement-cap fight-iron-pump

915-What do these words have in common? billowy-biopsy-begin

916-Discern the convergent word? wet-egg-head got-bone-let eater-patch-roll

917- Name an anagrammatic description of crying primates

918- Discern the convergent word? red-turn-tail gun-hit-suicide age-sun-over

919- Name an anagrammatic description of the hippest cats

920- Discern the convergent word? wrestle-one-or up-beer-pot out-eye-car

921-What do these words have in common? bloated-enable-slang

922- Discern the convergent word? map-twister-acid off-wash-ports a-wag-less

923- Name an anagrammatic description of wise underwear

924- Discern the convergent word? ability-atlantic-piece only-lemon-owner grey-guitar-sea

925-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that mean accentuated end courses

926-Discern the convergent word? line-bone-breaker duck-off-about leopard-oil-alive

927--Name a 2 word palindromic phrase that describes Joan Sutherland

928- Discern the convergent word? face-Boston-pizza up-ball-fly flying-urine-leaf

929- Name an anagrammatic description of a dive in the Canadian prairies

930- Discern the convergent word? due-up-see back-Canadian-sandwich favor-paste-powder

931-What do these words have in common? zipper- escalator-stetson

932- Discern the convergent word? bar-priest-stones egg-fool-wet all-trade-cabinet

933-Turn a southwest USA city into a midwest USA city by taking its last letter and moving it to the front.

934- Discern the convergent word? Sand-wheel-by wolf-blood-fox up-eye-led

935-Name a famous museum that features a 3 letter alphabetical string e.g., abc or xyz

936- Discern the convergent word? up-blackberry-pearl he-master-ski tree-hill-bomb

937-What do these words have in common? brand lament -oblate

938- Discern the convergent word? blue-gun-sugar shack-season-bay fever-king-mimic

939- Name an anagrammatic description of a wandering earthling

940- Discern the convergent word? over-I-under ace-head- scoff batting-less-trade

941-Namean 8 letter European city where every letter is worth 1 point in Scrabble

942- Discern the convergent word? locust-dear-well job-case-tier led-golden-sugar

943-What do these words have in common? cummerbund-nabob-pashmina-cushy

944- Discern the convergent word? bone-yellow-cotton check-cool-courts ate-oil-pilot

945-Name a US city that is an anagram of a word that is a synonym for “identify”

946 - Discern the convergent word? a-boy-tom social-madame-net tractor-moth-black

947- -Name a 3 word palindromic phrase that describes Napoleo (alternate spelling)

948-Discern the convergent word? Irish-ball-able ale-biscuit-tea ration-white-money

949- Name an anagrammatic description of the prickliest moralist

950- Discern the convergent word? Christmas-Navy-ant -page-pant-part on-gun-sting

951- Name an anagrammatic description that means gets fortification

952-Discern the convergent word? tree-stem-hare blue-grass-grey a-man-turkey

953- Name an anagrammatic description of an Irish spirit over the hill

954-Discern the convergent word? racing-dung-cigarette sea-all-hunting up-ram-dollar

955- Name an anagrammatic description of a puzzling elfin young woman

956-Discern the convergent word? pus-my -runner lout-beer-phone dew-bee-cake

957-Name an anagrammatic description of a Plains Indians who drive horse-drawn carriages

958- Discern the convergent word? white-gas-on bow-hog-red dress-under-fancy

959- What do these words have in common? devilish-grit-spooned

960- Discern the convergent word? ding-hit-her skills-like-amount her-water-ion

961- Name an anagrammatic descriptionthat describes Teutonic schmatologists

962- Discern the convergent word? watering-bad-ply dance-full-under pay-a-play

963- Name an anagrammatic description of a cushy but unprotected job

964 -Discern the convergent word? foot-willow-riot hand-slip-mad speckled-mud-as

965-Name a northeast US city that becomes the name of a European country in its language when you switch the middle letters

966- Discern the convergent word? raisin-ration-roll ahoy-computer-per knife-cake-blue

967-What do these words have in common? ablution-lased-manic

968-Discern the convergent word? ring-red-leaves soup-dome-green fly-first-passion

969-What do these words have in common? impel-scaly-state

970- Discern the convergent word? leather-come-field palm-pale-type splitting-piece-candy

971--Name a 2 word palindromic phrase for a Brazilian recollection

972-Discern the convergent word? Mormon-bomber-drawers bra-sweater-in bag-print-size

973-Name a 2 word palindromic phrase for a polygraph

974- Discern the convergent word? as-in-pat cold-ball-sure leaf-bite-stick

975-Change a US city to another US city by changing the pair of vowels.

976- Discern the convergent word? nuts-picking-fruit let-chat-per shack-season-bar

977-What do these words have in common? crate-rained-rosary

978- Discern the convergent word? trap-water-bag dust-ere-stalag disc-past-east

979- Name an anagrammatic description that means fought against Brown or Wintour

980- Discern the convergent word? smoked-sweet- white moose-king-cheese a-egg-meal

981- Name a country that is an anagram to a world capital .

982- Discern the convergent word? bath-dis-ward may-seas-town bypass-under-out

983-What do these words have in common? yogurt-tulip-horde

984- Discern the convergent word? cloth-head-board lemon-owner-practitioner juice-root-top

985-Name at least 2 animals of at least 6 letters made up of only odd letters in the alphabet.

986- Discern the convergent word? spiny-electric-basket dips-led-chops blue-night-speckled

987-Name a Hawaiian singer's full name that is an anagram of a nickname of a 60s-70s Celtic great

988- Discern the convergent word? rod-hot-hog woman-car-priest wedding-tea-ball

989-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes an Anglo in Nuuk

990- Discern the convergent word? bump-pump-closed symbol-land-felt bone-cap-numb

991-Which place doesn't belong in this grouping? Haifa-Jerusalem-Tel Aviv- United Arab Emirates-Yemen

992- Discern the convergent word? trader-crazy-car cheese-he-herder family-sea-water

993- What do these words have in common? caned-harem-ornate

994- Discern the convergent word? boar-blood- roll nut-green-salt jack-net-stew

995-Name a state capital that doesn't share any let ters with its state.

996-Discern the convergent word? bad-meridian-brother wracking-peripheral-gall srtap-pad-blade

997-Aside from having 11 letters what do these words have in common? amicability-communities-compartment

998 Discern the convergent word? ride-tail-up elk-harass-blood flying-grey-night

999-Name a 2 word anagrammatic phrase that describes the way the language is spoken at a South Carolina military college

1000-Discern the convergent word? barrel-fire-jack bell-salad-shell oil-salted-stand

Friday, March 6, 2015

What came first?

(This article is a version of my March Lexpert article)

What came first, the colour or the fruit?


Howard Richler

Dedicated longtime readers of the Lexpert Words column will no doubt remember that in April 2011 I explained that, lexicographically,at least, there is no debate that the egg preceded the chicken. It arrived in the English langauge in the 9th century whereas chicken only made its debut a century later. Today I will address the equally weighty conundrum of whether the colour orange or the fruit orange deserves first honours.

I posed this question to 15 friends where 80% ( 12 out of 15) believed that the colour came before the fruit and several people based their answer on the colour term being used more often than the fruit one. Although the colour orange is quite common in our vocabulary, this commonality is somewhat recent. In their 1969 book Basic Color Terms , authors Brent Beslin and Paul Kay show how virtually all languages possess a colour sequence that begins with words for black and white ( or light and dark colours), then continues to red, then green and yellow, then blue, then brown and eventually to gray, orange, pink, and purple.

Whereas the earliest citation of orange the fruit is from the beginning of the 15th century, the colour orange only appears more than a hundred years later. Actually, there was no word for the colour orange in Old English and a castle decorator would have had to say geolu-read, “yellow-red” to describe a throne that was orange-coloured.

The orange has enjoyed an exotic etymological odyssey over the millennia. Around 2500 years ago, the orange made a trip to India from southern China. A Sanskrit medical text describes the narangah, valued for its curative powers. It was a bitter orange, often now referred to as a Seville orange, and the word probably derives from one of the Dravidian languages of southern India, such as Malayalam or Tamil, where the term naru meant “fragrant.” Its journey, however, had just on its first leg because from India it travelled to Persia where it was rendered as narang and to Arabia where it was called naranj. In the Middle Ages, Muslim merchants brought this bitter type of orange to Sicily and before long it was available throughout Europe. The sweet variety (sometimes called a China orange) that we associate with this fruit reached Europe fifty years later when Portuguese sailors imported it from India. Sweet oranges were considered a luxury and until the middle of the 19th century a delight enjoyed by mostly the aristocracy.

The Arabic word naranj was swallowed, in some cases, almost whole in several European languages, e.g., Byzantine Greek nerantzion, Italian narancia and Spanish naranja. But the first letter “n” is often changed or removed entirely as in the Portuguese , the Italian arancio, arancia or the late Latin aurantium. The loss of of “n” may have occurred in a linguistic process called rebracketing that gave us English words uncle from nuncle and apron from napron. When preceded by an indefinite article such as a or an in English, or une or uno in Romance languages, the “n” can disappear. The opposite process can also occur; an “n” can be added to a word that didn't originally have one. For example, a “newt” was originally in Middle English rendered as “an eute” and a “nickname) was an “eke name.” The Latin aurantium referenced before was probably also influenced by the word aurum, “gold” since the fruit had a golden colour.

Although we see a progression towards the spelling of “orange” in both English and French, this form of the word is due to a coincidence. In the south of France, there once was a Roman city named Arausio. In Provençal, a dialect of the Romance language Occitan, the name of the city morphed into Aurenja which was becominag a centre of the orange trade and Aurenja was nearly identical to the Provençal,fruit word auranja. From here it was a small step to orenge and finally orange for both the city and the fruit.

And orange (or should I say Orange) was not finished with its frequent travelling. In the 16th century Philibert de Chalon of Orange was awarded a good chunk of the Netherlands by Emperor Charles V. When he died, his title passed to his German nephew, William of Nassau, Prince of Orange, who established the Dutch Republic and the House of Orange. As William organized Protestants in Holland to struggle against Catholic Spain for independence, both the name and the colour became associated with the Netherlands.

In a couple of generations, however, orangeness would travel once again. William's grandson William III became King of England in the late 17th century. Because he defended the Protestant population of Ireland, the Protestants there became known as the Orangemen in his honour.

Incidentally, an orange’ s colour has nothing to do with its ripeness. Oranges turn orange only as a result of cold weather, which breaks down a membrane protecting their green chlorophyll.

Howard's book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

How Chinese flavours English

(Published originally in Lexpert under the title All the Ch'a in China)

How Chinese flavours our language


Howard Richler

This year, February 19th marks the first day of the Chinese New Year, also known as the Spring Festival or the Lunar New Year. Chinese civilization dates back at least 4,000 years and is the source of many of the world's greatest inventions including paper, printing, and the compass, not to mention china (porcelain) itself.

However, if you were to ask people to name an English word that derives from Chinese, the responses would probably remind you of a Chinese restaurant take-out order and would likely include chow mein, chop suey, and won ton. The first word in this grouping to make it into the OED is chop suey, an adaptation of the Cantonese shap sui, “mixed bits” which entered in English in 1888. Actually, the “chop” in chopsticks, also has a Chinese origin, but here the meaning is “quick.” The word chopsticks is a corruption of k’wâi-tsze, “the quick and nimble ones.”

Missing from the above is perhaps the greatest gustatory Chinese delight. Whereas Arabic brought us intoxicating beverages such as alcohol and coffee, Chinese can take credit for the mildly inebriating libation tea. British slang for a cup of tea is “cuppa char,” “char” being a corruption of cha, which derives from the Mandarin ch’a. This reflects the first OED rendering in 1598 with the spelling “chaa”; its first mention in Europe is as “cha” in Portugal in 1559. Under the name te, or thee, it was imported by the Dutch from Java, where it had been brought by Chinese merchants from the province of Amoy. It was introduced in France in 1635, Russia in 1638 and England by 1655. Tea was first sold publicly in England at Garway’s Coffee House in London ; in 1660, Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary, “I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I never had drank before.”

Chinese has been nourishing us with food words for centuries. “Tofu” joins our lexicon in 1880. The word is rendered in Chinese as dòufu; dòu meaning “beans” and fu meaning “rotten.” Tofu is made from a soybean extract and the word “soy” (or soya) is a 17th century Chinese extract. It comes from the word shi-yu; shi in Chinese meaning “salted beans” and yu meansing“oil.” Joining our language around the same time is ginseng, a plant whose root is credited with medicinal properties. Its Chinese name jen shen, literally means “man root,” a reference to the root's forked shape, which is said to resemble a man.

The word “ketchup” flavours our language early in the 18th century and is generally seen as deriving from the Malay kechap. But this word itself comes from the word kê-tsiap in the Chinese Amoy dialect, where it refers to “pickled fish-brine or sauce.” The original condiment that Dutch traders imported from Asia appears to be a fish sauce or a sauce made from special mushrooms salted for preservation. A 1711 OED citation states, “Soy comes in tubs from Japan and the best ketchup from Tonquin, yet good of both sorts are made and sold very cheap in China.” The English added a “t” to the Malay word, changed the “a” to a “u” and started making ketchup themselves, using ingredients like mushrooms,walnuts, cucumbers, and oysters. It wasn’t until American seamen added tomatoes from Mexico or the Spanish West Indies that the quintessential tomato ketchup was born.

Of course, Chinese contributions to English transcend our palates. The rhyming words “tycoon” and “typhoon,” for example, are both of Chinese vintage. Tycoon ultimately comes from the Chinese words ta, “great,” and kiun, “prince.” It was rendered in Japanese as taikun,“great lord,” and was the title by which the shogun would be described to foreigners. Typhoon comes from the words ta,big,” and feng, “wind.”

The word “kowtow” in English bears a taint of obsequiousness but its origin in Chinese doesn’t connote an act of servility. It comes from the words k’o, “knock” and t’ou, “the head” and derives from the Chinese custom of touching the ground with the forehead as an expression of extreme respect. The word “gung-ho” comes from the words kung, “work” and ho, “together.” It was adopted in World War II by US Marines under the command of General Evans Carlson. The Nov 8, 1942 New York Times reported that “borrowing an idea from China, Carlson frequently has what he calls kung-hou meetings…problems are threshed out and orders explained.” Probably owing to the practice of some Marines in showing the same enthusiasm in picayune matters such as white glove inspections, the term gung-ho acquired a connotation of overzealousness.

As late as the 1990s, another word of Chinese pedigree became popular : feng shui, which refers to the relationship of people to the environment in which they live, and in particular their dwelling or workplace. Surprisingly, the word dates back in English to 1797 where we find it referenced in the Encycolpaedia Brittanica. You will not, however, find an old citation for the word taikonaut, thus proving that our lexicon is still being enriched by Chinese. It found a home this millennium in the OED to refer to a Chinese astronaut; taikong meaning “outer space.”

Howard's book Wordplay: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015


Unsanctioning Sanction


Howard Richler

In Crazy English, Richard Lederer points out the many anomalies of the English language such as greyhounds not necessarily being grey, and fireflies being beetles not flies. However, this book is probably best known for this quip: “In what other language do people drive in a parkway and park on a driveway?”

Some months ago here in my Lexpert column I dealt with the seemingly contradictory usage of the non-literal sense of “literally,”; this is but one example of many words that can have contradictory meanings. For example, “cleave” can mean adhere or separate; “dust,” add fine particles or remove them; “oversight,” monitor or fail to oversee; “ravel,” entangle or disentangle; and “with,” alongside or against.

Sometimes, we can explain how particular words evolved contradictory senses. With the word “fast” we start off with the sense of “immovable” or “firm, as in “standing fast.” From this meaning we developed the concept of “running fast,” and hence the “rapid” sense of the word. Similarly, “fine” originally denoted something “slender,” and this led to a sense of “highly finished,” which in turn led to a sense of “beautiful.” In situations where large growth is desirable,such as, a “fine head of hair,” the word “fine” can be seen as “large,” even though the word started its life as “slender.”

Words that possess contradictory meanings are sometimes called contronyms “Contronym” is now being researched for inclusion in the OED; it does, however, appear in Oxford Dictionaries Online its first citation being in 1962. An alternate designation for this type of word is Janus-faced; the term coming from the Roman god Janus whose name derives from the Latin ianua, “entrance gate.” Janus was the god of doorways and gateways and as they can be passed in and out, his face looked in opposite directions.

As mentioned in my “literally” article, the context in which the seemingly contradictory word is used should clarify the intended meaning. The word “sanction,” however, drives many to distraction due to its uncertain meaning. Complicating matters further, “sanction” does double duty as a noun and a verb where different rules apply. Its first usage was as a noun in the 16th century when it referred to a law or decree and in particular an ecclesiastical decree that if violated resulted in a penalty. In the late 18th century we see sanction used as a verb with the sense of to confirm or to permit in an authoritative manner.

According to linguist Ben Zimmer, the word has headed in opposite directions – “One relating to legal or ethical rules, and one relating to penalties against infringing such rules. Since the 18th century, the verb formed from 'sanction' has generally accorded with the positive sense as when Thomas Jefferson wrote in his autobiography of preserving 'the very words of the established law, wherever their meaning has been sanctioned by judicial decisions.' ”

As a noun, the dominant sense of “sanction” is economic or military action taken by a government or governments against another country; e.g.,“USA and Canada imposed sanctions on Russia.” Confusingly, however, it can mean the opposite, e.g.,“USA and Britain seek UN sanction against Iraq.” Interestingly, definition 2a in the OED states “Law: The specific penalty enacted in order to enforce obedience to a law”; however definition 2b states “Extended to include the provisions of reward for obedience.”

As I mention in my book How Happy Became Homosexual, the meaning of words is in constant flux and by the mid-20th century the “penalize” sense of the verb sanction arose and its use has recently started to become the dominant one. This probably developed because the usage of the “reward” sense of the noun became rarer. For example, in 2010 Bloomberg News reported that “{US congressman}Rangel would be the first lawmaker sanctioned by the full House since..” Just this past May a Los Angeles Times headline read “Donald Sterling Sanctioned” and a Business Insider one declared “Obama Just Sanctioned The Scariest Man on Earth,”(Russian oil tycoon) Igor Sechin. Often the sense of the verb isn't apparent from the headline. For example, the Jerusalem Post in 2011 stated that “Normal China-Iran business ties shouldn't be sanctioned.” Only by reading the full article, however, does it become apparent that the author is saying that business ties shouldn't be penalized. I particularly enjoyed this headline that appeared in Slate in January 2013: “Is There Anything Left To Sanction in North Korea?” Only North Korea's egregious reputation makes it clear that the author came to bury Kim Jong-un not to praise him.

My advice to the careful writer is to avoid the verbal use of the word “sanction” by itself if there is any possibility of the meaning being misconstrued. Comprehension can be enhanced by specifying “issue (or levy) sanctions against” or disapproval and “give sanction to” for approval. As a noun,because the negative sense of the word is dominant, I would avoid sentences such as “USA and Britain sought UN sanction against Russia” and replace “sanction” with a word such as “authorization.”

Howard next book Word Play: Arranged & Deranged Wit will be published in 2015.