Monday, April 4, 2011

Terms that also mean the opposite

Came across a term that can mean one thing and also its opposite (like "inflammable" used to before everyone realized how dangerous it was to have that particular term ambiguous :).

This is from Deborah Lipshadt's book on the Eichmann Trial. She mentions that she got sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving for calling him a Holocaust denier, but he did it in the UK, and she wrote, "I found that the UK libel law was the mirror image of the US one."

I took that to mean it was identical. You know, the exact image?

But she went on to explain that she meant "the exact opposite" in that in the US, the plaintiff has to prove that the allegation is untrue, and in the UK, the burden is on the defendant (her) to prove that it was true.  And of course, that makes sense. When you look in a mirror, you aren't seeing an "exact" image because your right eye is on the left side, etc.

Just another example of "Crazy English." I love that stuff, you  know, you drive on the parkway and you park on the driveway stuff.



The Stray said...

I'm confused...why would a defendant (who is claiming to be innocent) want to prove an allegation (the charge against them) to be true, no matter where the courts was located? That sounds like some sort of twisted kangaroo court where the the condemned is given the task of trying to prove they actually did whatever crime they're being accused of (though that make for an interesting story...)

Jordan said...

In the US system, the plaintiff must prove that libel is false (and sometimes they have to prove it's harmful, and/or published with "actual malice").

In the UK system, they basically assume guilty until proven innocent when it comes to libel. The defendant must prove the plaintiff's allegation (of false & harmful material published by the defendant) is false—or that what the defendant published was true. (This is also an acceptable defense in the US.)

I read recently that "inflammable" was the original term.

My fave word that really does mean two diametrically opposed things is "cleave." You can cleave a rock in two, or you can cleave unto your spouse. (Just please don't cleave your spouse in two!)

Clare K. R. Miller said...

I love this language.

Jordan, I love "cleave" too. I mean, look at "cleavage." It's where two things are pressed together... but it's also the separation of those two things. (Not describing the things so as to keep this blog PG ;) )

Adrian said...

As I recall, there are a few of these where the meaning depends on which side of the Atlantic you reside. For example, when politician's in the US decide to "table" an issue, it means to put it on the backburner or to postpone discussion. For the Brits, however, it means to put it on the table for negotiation, essentially the opposite meaning.

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

These are great. I don't have an opposite example, but I always wonder what it's like for ESL folks to learn that "a fly" is a bug, "to fly" is what you do on a plane, and your "fly" is your zipper.

Christina Auret said...

I'm more or less ESL and stuff like the fly thing does not really phase me.

My home language is even more utilitarian than English. We only have 3 tenses and we get a lot of mileage out of most words.

'lekker' can be nice, a sweet, very much and fun. It can also be used to refer to someones sanity or the rightness of a thing or feeling. And that's just one example.

I think there are words in most languages have different meanings depending on how and when they are used. So that is probably one thing that doesn't confuse anyone.

Melissa said...

A few years ago I went to England for vacation (I'm American) and at one of the restaurants I visited, they didn't bring out the bill until you asked. Well, it took ten minutes and two waiters before they could understand what I meant when I asked for the "check." I wonder if our poor, first waiter thought I wanted him to give me a bank check or something.