Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Identity of Opposites

Eric Thomson, in an email about hoi polloi and auto-antonyms, drew my attention to W.V. Quine, Quiddities: An Intermittently Philosophical Dictionary (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), pp. 51-52:
Faltering etymologists of an in some ways less favored century than our own based a number of etymological conjectures on a desperate hypothesis to the effect that some things were named for what they lacked. This explanatory principle is denominated by one of its own irresponsible instances: lucus a non lucendo—'A grove is called a lucus because there is no shining there.' My own untenable example of lucus a non lucendo is dastard: so called because he dastn't.

Hills offer tempting cases of the same. The word hill itself and the word low are the same in origin: Anglo-Saxon hlaw. Or I should say a word low; for I must spoil the story by adding that it has nothing to do with the adjective low. The low from hlaw is an obsolete noun that survives only in Ludlow and other place-names.

There is a companion piece in another word for hills: down, as in the Berkshire Downs. This word, which is cognate with dune, does bring us a step closer to the perilous lucus non lucens, for it is indeed related to the adverb down. The adverb is traced to the Anglo-Saxon of-dune, 'off hill'.

A distant kin of lucus a non lucendo is occasionally encountered today in an owlish allusion to "identity of opposites." The two examples about hills would be pat illustrations, but we have seen that each of them is accounted for without appealing to any mystical principle. A case for identity of opposites that is invariably cited is altus, Latin for both 'high' and 'deep'. What we actually have here, however, is a case rather of parochial outlook on our own part. What is objective about height and depth is distance from top to bottom. We call it height or depth according to our point of view; Latin simply tells how it is, with no thought of opposites.

Another tempting case for the identity of opposites is cleave: 1. adhere, 2. sever. However, Skeat argues that this is a convergence of two words, independent in origin. A rather weak case is dispose in two senses: 1. get rid of, 2. have at one's disposal. Another is sanction: 1. approval, 2. penalty. Another is enjoin 1. order, 2. forbid. Another, perhaps, is unqualified: my support of a proposal may be unqualified either because it is whole-hearted or because I lack the requisite qualifications. A further example, it would seem, is fast: static as in holding fast and dynamic as in moving fast. The dialectic can be aufgehoben, however, as Hegel would have had it, on a par with altus above: fast in both cases connotes a quality of intensity.

May identity of opposites be manifested not only by sameness of word for opposite senses, but also by sameness of sense for opposite words? Well, there is fast, again, and its opposite loose: there are fast women, I am told, and loose women, and no clear distinction between them. A little and a lot are opposites, but quite a little is quite a lot. Again goals and targets come to much the same thing in figurative speech, though we like our goals and shoot our targets. But I stray progressively from my declared topic, etymology.
Oddly enough, there really is a connection between lucus and lucendo, according to Julius Pokorny, Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Bern: Francke, 1959), s.v. leuk-:
lūcus, alat. Akk. loucom 'Hain', eigentlich '(Wald-)Lichtung' (vgl. collūcāre 'in einem Wald eine Lichtung vornehmen', interlūcāre 'Bäume auslichten').
Related post: Lucus A Non Lucendo.


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