Friday, August 24, 2007


Auto-Antonym: Wan

J.R.R. Tolkien was an assistant on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) for a time. One of the words he worked on was wan. I don't have access to the OED, but I'm reading Peter Gilliver et al., The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), and on p. 25 (Figure 9) there is a reproduction of part of the OED entry for the adjective wan.

An auto-antonym is a word that can mean the opposite of itself, and wan qualifies as an auto-antonym. Nowadays it mostly means "pale" or "sallow," but the first definition in the OED is "Lacking light, or lustre; dark-hued, dusky, gloomy, dark." It comes from Old English wann = "dark, gloomy, black." Because "pale" and "dark" are opposites, wan is an auto-antonym.

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