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16 More Words That Are Their Own Opposites

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Some words are their own worst enemies, or at least their own opposites. They’re called contronyms, auto-antonyms, antagonyms, and several other names—but whatever you call them, they’re confusing. A previous article rounded up 25 of these contrary critters, but wait, there’s more ... 

1. Literally

The uproar was literally earth shattering in 2013 when the editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary announced that literally could mean its opposite: figuratively. Well, remember: dictionaries don’t legislate what words should mean; they just describe how speakers of a language use them. And as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, literally has been used colloquially to mean figuratively for literally eons. As Frances Brooke wrote in 1769: “He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.”

2. Apology

It’s not really an apology unless you say you’re sorry for something you did, right? But what if you’re not the least bit sorry and you make a reasoned defense of your actions or anything else you feel is misunderstood or unappreciated, like Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry? Who’s sorry now? 

3. Cull

To cull means either to pick the best (now usually said of a literary selection) or to remove the worst or weakest (in forestry or wildlife management).

4. Dike

A dike can be either a wall to prevent flooding or a ditch.

5. Enjoin

Enjoin means to urge someone to do something or to prohibit someone from doing something by issuing an injunction. “He enjoined him to return to his duties” vs. “the miners were enjoined from striking.”

6. Fine

Superb or meh? Fine means excellent (for example, a fine wine) or barely acceptable (“OK. That’s fine. Whatever”). 

7. First degree

First degree means least severe in reference to a burn, but most severe in the case of a murder charge.

8. Garnish

Garnish means to add a decorative touch, such as a lemon slice, to food, but it can also mean to take away, as with wages.

9. Handicap

It can mean either a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement or an advantage provided to ensure equality.

10. Reservation 

A reservation could be either a firm commitment or a hesitation about something. “Will you be dining with us tonight?” “Yes, we have reservations.” Or is it, “No, we have reservations”? 

11. Secrete 

When a cell or organ secretes something, it brings it forth, but when people secrete treasure or a document, they hide it. In a 2012 Word Snooper post, Lexie Kahn divulged the secret origin of secrete.

12. Stakeholder

Stakeholder can mean someone who has a stake in an enterprise, or a bystander who holds the stake for those placing a bet. 

13. Top 

Top means to put something on top or to take the top off. She topped the tree so it wouldn’t brush the ceiling, then she topped it with a star.

14. Trip

A trip is either a journey or a stumble. If you take a trip running for the plane, you’re not going anywhere.

15. Variety

Variety can refer to a particular type, or many types. The large nursery offers a variety of roses, but the smaller place has only one variety.

16. Wind up

When you wind something up are you preparing it to start or stop? That depends on whether it’s an old fashioned clock or a long-winded speech.

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Big Questions
Where Does the Phrase '… And the Horse You Rode In On' Come From?
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Horses may no longer be the dominant form of transportation in the U.S., but the legacy of our horseback-riding history lives on in language. When telling people off, we still use the phrase “... and the horse you rode in on.” These days, it’s rare for anyone you're telling to go screw themselves to actually be an equestrian, so where did “and the horse you rode in on” come from, anyway?

Well, let’s start with the basics. The phrase is, essentially, an intensifier, one typically appended to the phrase “F*** you.” As the public radio show "A Way With Words" puts it, it’s usually aimed at “someone who’s full of himself and unwelcome to boot.” As co-host and lexicographer Grant Barrett explains, “instead of just insulting you, they want to insult your whole circumstance.”

The phrase can be traced back to at least the 1950s, but it may be even older than that, since, as Barrett notes, plenty of crude language didn’t make it into print in the early 20th century. He suggests that it could have been in wide use even prior to World War II.

In 1998, William Safire of The New York Times tracked down several novels that employed the term, including The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1972) and No Bugles, No Drums (1976). The literary editor of the latter book, Michael Seidman, told Safire that he heard the term growing up in the Bronx just after the Korean War, leading the journalist to peg the origin of the phrase to at least the late 1950s.

The phrase has had some pretty die-hard fans over the years, too. Donald Regan, who was Secretary of the Treasury under Ronald Reagan from 1981 through 1984, worked it into his official Treasury Department portrait. You can see a title along the spine of a book in the background of the painting. It reads: “And the Horse You Rode In On,” apparently one of Regan’s favorite sayings. (The book in the painting didn't refer to a real book, but there have since been a few published that bear similar names, like Clinton strategist James Carville’s book …and the Horse He Rode In On: The People V. Kenneth Starr and Dakota McFadzean’s 2013 book of comics Other Stories And the Horse You Rode In On.)

It seems that even in a world where almost no one rides in on a horse, insulting a man’s steed is a timeless burn.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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