Watch out for those contronyms!


By Shirley Scott - Boomer Blog



English teachers struggle to teach, and many students struggle to learn, commonly confused words, troublesome pairs such as your/you’re, to/too, and its/it’s – stretching sometimes to the triple threat of their/there/they’re. We teach the principal is our pal rather than the principle, and I personally have preached to several generations of kids that lay means “to place” while lie means “to recline” – in two languages, no less! It is all a blight on our ability to communicate!

As the current election cycle stretches on, I have become aware of a similar list of words with possible political ramifications – words that candidates should use carefully, words that voters should clarify in their minds.

The word duo of patriotism/nationalism comes to mind, especially when they are used synonymously. Patriotism refers to “pride in and support of one’s country.” I am proud to sing about “the star-spangled banner” waving over “the land of the free.” I have visited many wonderful places, but “this is my country, land that I love.”

However similar the two words seem, nationalism pushes beyond the boundaries of patriotism, by “exalting one nation above all others to the detriment of those other nations.” Adolf Hitler’s regime serves as a particularly egregious example of nationalism: he came to power not so very long ago and, in doing so, endangered the world. In today’s ever-more-connected times, such intense nationalism is perilous. Every country is populated by people with lives, families, jobs, joys, challenges. Allowing other world citizens to live in their countries successfully and patriotically in no way diminishes the successful and patriotic lives we also strive to lead.

During my reading and research for today’s column, I ran across a term absolutely new to me: contronym, a word with opposite meanings – in essence, its own antonym. For example, oversight refers to “watchful care” and conversely to “mistakes caused by poor supervision.” Sanctions “permit” and/or “penalize.” Just what we need from politicians during this election year: words that can reverse themselves in mid-sentence!

For starters, there is the term compromise. People tend to hear and use compromise very differently. There are those who, in their personal lives, are unwilling to compromise. Athletes push themselves past normal limits, refusing to accept any standard below their goals. We rely on researchers and doctors to similarly disallow any form of compromise. This belief is a personal one, often admired and certainly respected.

In instances of the common good, however, group decision-making must rely on compromise. When problems need solutions, when laws need to be written, when paths forward need to be forged, parties on all sides of the table must engage in give-and-take. In the 1890’s British political scientist Dr. Ernest Barker opined: “a compromise can be accepted by all because it bears the imprint of all.” Washington has grown increasingly stagnant as politicians huff-and-puff in their own little corners, unwilling to get something by giving something. In such matters, refusing to compromise leads nowhere.

Another laudable principle is that of loyalty. I have many casual acquaintances and lots of good friends, but I confide in a small circle of intimate friends. We are unfailingly loyal to one another. There are no written rules governing our mutual allegiance – we simply trust one another. I cannot imagine life without my closest confidantes.

When the allegiance of loyalty, however, is demanded in furtherance of a cause or an individual, problems follow. Another negative example from the Nazi years: soldiers and civil servants, who originally pledged allegiance to their country’s constitution and laws, were eventually required by oath to swear unconditional obedience to the Führer, who reveled in salutes and flags and firelight rallies.

Be it on a person-to-person basis or on a larger scale, there is no place for loyalty that demands dogma over truth, that rejects any sense of conscience. There must be room – even in matters of loyalty – for us to agree to disagree.

Even the word freedom, a concept near and dear to every American heart, has interpretations dissimilar enough to cause difficulty. One perception of freedom concerns the right to speak, act, and think as we please. By adding the phrase “without interference or infringement,” the dichotomy of freedom reveals itself.

Life in a society illustrates the inherent contradiction of our most cherished national principle. For example, we are free to drive – but we better have a license and insurance and obey the speed limit. There are, after all, conditions to our freedom.

Problems arise, however, when someone else’s freedom interferes with mine. A neighbor’s wandering pet or noisy car can drive me crazy because our freedoms seem to clash. On this relatively insignificant scale, such annoyances are merely bothersome. It is infinitely more problematic when people expect to live free of the mere presence of persons with different ethnic origins, religious beliefs, or skin color.

We must all resolve to lessen the polarization causing so many problems at so many levels in our society. To live harmoniously in this country and on this planet, we must define our terms clearly. We must more closely align our interpretations of basic concepts for the common good. We must steer clear of extreme interpretations of these concepts – that we have learned from history. Only when we understand the privileges as well as the limitations of patriotism, compromise, loyalty, and freedom, can we move forward together as the great nation we are.

By Shirley Scott

Boomer Blog

Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.

Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.