Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Off-Topic Tuesday: Phantonyms

In the spirit of Terry Thornton’s H.O.G.S. blogging (History/Observations/Genealogy/Stories), occasionally I would like to go “off topic” and include subjects that are not strictly related to genealogy. This idea was also inspired by Randy Seaver’s Saturday Night Genealogy Fun of two weeks ago – What is your all-time favorite song? – which sort of goes with the “write down your memories” part of genealogy (last week’s SNGF). And it also has elements of pure self-indulgence.

For the above-mentioned SNGF, it was very difficult for me to come up with just one song. As I looked through some of my “favorites” on Youtube, it occurred to me that I should use one of these clips – but I didn’t know how. Once I figured out how to do it, however, it seemed like it would be a lot of fun to post music clips occasionally. There are other random things I’d like to include as well, so Off-Topic Tuesday will be an occasional feature on this blog.

Today’s topic is phantonyms. This is a neologism created by Jack Rosenthal, William Safire’s successor as author of the On Language column, in the 25 September 2009 column. According to Rosenthal, “a word that looks as if it could mean one thing but means quite another could be called a phantonym, and warrants wariness.” He cites fulsome, noisome, and disinterested as examples. He also lists presently, which he says “does not mean now, but in a little while.” However, a quick check in a couple of dictionaries indicates that what often happens to phantonyms has already happened to this word: the “new” meaning becomes so common that it makes its way into accepted use (= inclusion in dictionaries) (and sometimes even supplants the original meaning). Moreover, this must have happened some time ago, since the two dictionaries I checked were the 2001 Webster’s II New College Dictionary (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Company) and the 1976 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged (Springfield, Massachusetts: G. & C. Merriam Company). Both indicated that presently can have both meanings. (The opposite seems to happen in Russian, where the words for now or right now eventually ended up meaning something closer to in a little bit, and then when I get around to it.)

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