Glorious, complicated, perverse English language

As an English speaking person, I take the vagaries of the English language for granted.  I can only imagine how difficult it must be to learn English as a second language.  It would seem that for every rule there is an exception (or six).

I have long been a lover of new words, and English grammar is an interest of mine (though I know I make grammar mistakes on a daily basis).

This post was spurred by another post from a talented author/blogger that I follow diligently, Kristen Twardowski. Her post was titled:

Untranslatable: Words Writers Should Know

I love words!  So much so that I have created a blog page with some of my favorite ones.

One day, while composing a blog post for a book review, I used the word peruse.  Then I stopped and questioned myself… Am I using this word correctly?  This led me to look it up and I found that it is a contronym!  What is a contronym you ask?

A contronym is a word that has two correct meanings that mean the opposite of each other.  Words that, depending on context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings. Did I mention earlier that English was perverse?

So peruse can mean to examine something thoroughly, carefully and at length OR it can mean to look over in a casual or cursory manner.  Don’t you love it?

From Merriam-Webster:

Two more of my favorite contronyms are:

Here is a listing of 75 more contronyms.

And if contronyms weren’t enough…  How is this for a fun little exercise?

Place the word ‘only’ anywhere in this sentence and note how the meaning of the sentence changes…

Only she told him that she loved him,

She only told him that she loved him.

She told only him that she loved him.

She told him only that she loved him.

She told him that only she loved him.

She told him that she only loved him.

She told him that she loved only him.

She told him that she loved him only.

Have you every paused to wonder:

If you love the English language as much as I do, I would be grateful for your comments.

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
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46 Responses to Glorious, complicated, perverse English language

  1. Pingback: English pronunciation poem | Fictionophile

  2. Lim says:

    Very interesting writing! Especially the part that how meanings change depending on the location of the word, Only. English is my second language but I have a quite good command of it so it was actually very fun to read those sentences and think like ‘oh my, they’re actually very different indeed lol’


  3. skyecaitlin says:

    This is remarkable, Lynne, and I loved the contronyms! English is a difficult language for non-English speakers to learn and use. I also take note ( wherever I am) about pronunciation: in the States. words are pronounced differently, depending on state or region; for instance, the name Anne can be pronunced many ways as well as the word ‘water.’


  4. Wow! Contronym… didn’t know that one. But then there’s so much to learn in English. I loved this post. Thank you for sending me a link to your blog. I thoroughly enjoyed going through this post. 🙂


  5. Pingback: Perverse English language (take 2 – why learning English is hard) | Fictionophile

  6. Amelia says:

    Awesome article. I totally enjoyed reading it. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Sunday Summary | 2nd – 9th April – BookBum

  8. Paul Rudiak says:

    Your post is interesting, and one thing in particular sent me off on a tangent. The word “chuffed” is noted by Webster’s Dictionary as being British and informal, yet no British speaker would recognise the negative context. To us, it always means to be pleased, and the Oxford English Dictionary agrees. This implies that the word gained its opposite meaning after it had crossed the Atlantic, which goes to illustrate a possible reason for contronyms: the journey of the English language around the world. This voyage has been entirely free of any regulation or an insistence that purity be maintained, and it has given us our rich lexicon, which continues to expand.

    All languages are living things that grow and evolve over time, and the English language has had a remarkably colourful journey. A book that I recommend reading is “The Adventure of English” by Melvyn Bragg. He’s a British writer and broadcaster who has been making good use of the breadth and depth of the English language for a long time. The book is described as a biography of the language, but it reads like an adventure story, following the flow of words and their meanings as they were taken around the world.

    Now that your post has piqued my interest, I think I’ll have to re-read Mr Bragg’s adventure story again to put things into perspective.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Fictionophile says:

      Thanks for your keen comments Paul. More importantly, thanks for the book recommendation. I will place “The Adventure of English” on my TBR right away.


  9. Great post! I love language and the complexity of words and their meanings/origins, but must say I had not heard of contronyms. I love English, I learned it as a second language at 10 and fell in love!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fictionophile says:

      I love English too Cynthia. I’m a native speaker, yet there seems to always be something new to learn about it.


  10. Ai Harun says:

    That’s really interesting and confusing because I am a non-native speaker. Thanks for sharing this. 🙂


  11. Sandra says:

    Great post – from a fellow logophile (a lover of words). I hadn’t heard of the term ‘contronym’ and of the examples you give us, only ‘peruse’ was known to me in having two meanings. I’m now trying to think of ‘chuffed’ and ‘non-plussed’ in the alternative sense you’ve described; it’s very disconcerting!

    The ‘only’ sentence is brilliant. But I have to agree with fictionfan: I love the the expression on the cat’s face. I think he is non-plussed by our wonderful, ridiculous language!


  12. This is excellent! I’ve never heard of a contronym before but I love it and it’s a perfect name for such a phenomenon. I’ve always liked (and been extremely confused by!) the word non-plussed. Thanks for sharing!


  13. This post was really interesting. Technically, English is my third language and these rules sometimes can be fascinating or annoying.


  14. Julia says:

    Love this! It reminded me of a quote – “never make fun of someone who speaks broken English. It means they know another language”. We should never forget how difficult it must be for people to be learning English as a second language 🙂


  15. Love this post, I’m always googling things like this, it really is fascinating!


  16. FictionFan says:

    Hahaha! Great post! I loved the “only” sentence, but the icing on the cake is the expression on the cat! 😀


  17. Also, there are 9 ways to pronounce “ough” words in English. I’d hate to be a non English speaker trying to learn the language 😫

    Liked by 1 person

  18. James, while John had had “had”, had had “had had”; “had had” had had a better effect on the teacher. (Words in quotations should be emphasised). This is the WEIRDEST English sentence ever!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. BrizzleLass says:

    I studied English Language as opposed to the more commonly studied English Literature and this was one of the areas explored in depth. There are so many quirks to our language, one of my favourites is Pidgin English to describe all the deviations around the world as English has almost become another language entirely.


  20. Oh my, I’m glad English is my first language because if it weren’t, I’m sure I could never learn it. Just the other day, my sister-in-law said she was chuffed and there was a family discussion about whether she was pleased or displeased. I still don’t know, but now at least I know she could have meant either one. 🙂


  21. Gloria Bowes says:

    This is such an interesting topic, I am also a lover of new words, unfortunately at my current age I have to use the new word MANY times to remember it’s meaning. My darling father-in-law who passed away last year at the grand age of 98 was also a devoted word lover. When he came across a new word he would write it on an index card with it’s often many meanings. I have ‘somewhat’ fond memories of sitting on the deck with Bubbi (his nickname) enjoying an afternoon of sun, warm breezes and the odd glass of wine when he would pull out his stack of cards and start to quiz me. Oh my………


  22. skyecaitlin says:

    I love words, and this was an exceptional post, Lynne; I also visited Tristan Twardowki’s web site and the exhibited pictures are enchanting. I have always been passionate about the lexicon, and I did learn additional information right here, right now. Thank you: the English language is the chosen language of writers; think of Joseph Conrad, whose first language was NOT English; however, he wrote his masterpieces in English because there are more words in our ‘field of dreams’ than any other language.
    One of the things that attracts or repeals me is an author’s applied use of Standard English in a book, article, novel, or poem. I wince if there are errors, and we all know sometimes they appear.. Have you ever read White Oleander? Janet Fitch’s use of language is effused with harmony and passion, and it is sustained throughout the entire novel; It’s poetry in prose.
    Thank you for this wonderful thread.


  23. The geek in me thoroughly enjoyed this 😊


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