The Ecphorizer

Damn Those Dictionaries
Paul Gregson

Issue 01 (September 2003)

checks in with some interesting dictionary musings

Last week I took down my French/English dictionary1 to find the English meaning of an unusual French word.  After that I continued looking at other French words; how many of us read dictionaries like novels.  I came across myriagramme and myriamètre2 for example,

...French and the English contradicting each other? This is unheard of.

the former meaning ten thousand grams, the latter meaning ten thousand metres.  Why the logical French would go to all this trouble to avoid saying “dix kilos” or “dix kilomètres” beats me.  But then I also do not understand why sometimes, in the French language, male genitals can take the feminine gender and female genitals can be masculine (the French have a rich variety of words for each.)
I also came across the word nyctalope, meaning, according to the translation given by Harrap, “A person who sees best in the dark, a cat-eyed person.”  It seemed reasonable to wonder if the condition nyctalopia would appear in a good English dictionary, so next time I was in the library I looked in Webster's3, which said: “A defect of vision characterized by reduced visual capacity in faint light or at night; also called night blindness.”
The French and the English contradicting each other?  This is unheard of.

A day or two later I happened to be reading the paperback version of Alastair MacLean’s novel “Floodgate,”4 where, on page 37, I was surprised to find a character saying: “nyctalopia ... the only English language word with two precisely opposite meanings.”  Webster’s gives no hint of two meanings.  I then looked in Larousse5, a weighty tome which is the bible, so to speak, of words in the French language.  Larousse agrees with Harrap’s single meaning, but not with Webster’s.
In this bilingual family we have all of the French “Tin-Tin” comic books and all of the “Asterix”.  This morning I happened to glance at one of the “Tin-Tin” books, “The Seven Crystal Balls.”  In it I found Captain Haddock insulting a careless motorist (in broad daylight) by calling him a nyctalope (where we would ordinarily say “you blind idiot.”)  So Captain Haddock agrees with Larousse.
All these discoveries in the space of a week - but it can’t stop there.  Nyctalopia is not, of course, the only English language word with two precisely opposite meanings.  In grade school we learned four or five, but I can now remember only “cleave” and “inflammable.”
Who can come up with other words?  Does English have a name for these words with two opposite meanings?  Does the French language have any words with two opposite meanings?
  1. Harrap’s Standard French and English Dictionary, revised edition January 1948.
  2. Almost certainly inventions of The Académie Française.
  3. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, unabridged, copyright 1971.
  4. Not an otherwise interesting tale.
  5. Larousse Universel, copyright 1923 by the Librairie Larousse, Paris. 

He was born on the Isle of Man, giving rise to a number of Manx Cat jokes, principal among them having to do with his lack of a tail. Paul is a Francophone and is married to Madeline, a lovely Parisienne.

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