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Etymological Contradictions:

The (perfectly proper) phrase "Split the atom" has this unusual property: It expressly contradicts the original-language meaning of the term "atom." "Atom" comes from "a-" (not) and "tom" (from the greek "cut," as in "appendectomy"). "Split the atom" thus means "split the thing that can't be split."

Are there other terms that fit this mold? Please make sure that you have your etymology right before posting examples. Best of all would be linking in your comment to a dictionary that notes the etymology.

pgepps (www):
Well, very nearly every usage of "unspeakable" or "indescribable" not only indicates but often accompanies a verbal description of the "unspeakable horror" or "indescribable joy" of (whatever).

Of course, we all "get" the locution.

This doesn't *precisely* fit your template, because you seem to be intending a two-language drift in meaning, where this one posits English as "original language."

For a more conforming example, how about "au just on the side," as au just is an adjectival prepositional phrase meaning "in gravy" (typically in its own gravy, or "juices"). "Beef au jus" makes sense, but....
3.11.2008 9:55am
pgepps (www):
did I mistype, or did some kind of spell checker kick in?

"au jus" and au jus throughout, above. geez. mornings.
3.11.2008 9:56am
Sk (mail):
Only marginally related (and I got it from the Simpsons).

Flammable and Inflammable mean the same thing.

Thus, perhaps 'inflammable' is an example you are looking for.

Sk
3.11.2008 9:56am
FantasiaWHT:
Except the etymology of inflammable (or maybe etymology isn't the right word, the breakdown of its component parts) isn't in - flammable, it's inflam - able, as in, it's is able to be inflamed.
3.11.2008 10:19am
Aeon J. Skoble (mail):
No, "inflammable means" -- oh hi there FantasiaWHT, you beat me by 90 seconds...
3.11.2008 10:21am
Snitty:
At the risk of digressing further, there are words called auto-antonyms. My favorite, and newest example is "invigilance."

The word invigilate means to look over, as in hold vigil. It's used primarily in the UK to mean someone who watches an art gallery. Therefore the word "invigilance" can mean either watching or not watching over something. Similarly, invigilant.

Though, those are primarily british uses.
3.11.2008 10:34am
JB:
Not the same, but it's notable that a vigilant regulatory body will apply sanctions to anyone performing unsanctioned activity.
3.11.2008 10:42am
yankev (mail):

The word invigilate means to look over, as in hold vigil. It's used primarily in the UK to mean someone who watches an art gallery. Therefore the word "invigilance" can mean either watching or not watching over something. Similarly, invigilant.
As a high school friend of mine remarked the first time we heard the word "counterintuitive", "I was just about to not think of that!"
3.11.2008 10:47am
Hoosier:
Pushing it here, but:

"Without let or hindrance." A frozen etymological fossil. "Let" at one point had the meanings: A) To allow; (B) To not allow; to hinder or prevent.

The English language doesn't like these sorts of things. So unlike German, it "evolves" its way out of the situation. The only other example I can think of: To the extent that we hear "cleave" these days, it means to split, as in the noun "cleavage." But in King James Bible lingo, a man would leave his home, and "cleave" to his wife.

With "let," we got rid of the negative meaning of the verb. With "cleave," we've thrown the verb out of everyday PDE.


Common Usages more along the lines you are asking for:

"Awfully good"; "pretty ugly," "terribly nice", etc. No.s 1 and 3 preserve outdated meanings of the adjectives. There was a time when *God* could be descibed as "awful" by the pious. A number of adjectives once used for powerful people, and God, have by now taken on pejorative connotations. This has led to English speakers calling Ivan IV "Terrble." What was really meant by "Grozny" is "Fearsome," or something along those lines.
3.11.2008 11:02am
b.:
elevated subway tracks?

tofurkey?
3.11.2008 11:06am
ResIpsaLoquitur (mail):
This is more of a nitpick than an etymological diatribe, but "I could care less" drives me batty. The correct phrase has always been "I couldn't care less," the intention meaning "I care about X so little that it's not possible for me to care at all." People mis-state the phrase in the positive sense, so the meaning is completely contradictory to their intention.
3.11.2008 11:13am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
My own private Volkswagen!
3.11.2008 11:20am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
On a similar note, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea!
3.11.2008 11:22am
John Armstrong (mail) (www):
Actually, that was sort of the point in the coining of the phrase. It wasn't until relatively recently that we realized that atoms even existed, and then it was still more recently that we realized they had internal structure. The technological achievement was that we could actually manipulate the internal structure of something we'd thought had none. What used to be thought of as a basic building block not only wasn't, but we could take it apart.
3.11.2008 11:39am
NaG (mail):
I would just like to note that many people, lawyers especially, have been misusing the phrase "split the baby." To split the baby does not mean that each side gets half of what they want. It means that neither side gets what they want at all.
3.11.2008 11:51am
Fub:
ResIpsaLoquitur wrote at 3.11.2008 10:13am:
The correct phrase has always been "I couldn't care less," the intention meaning "I care about X so little that it's not possible for me to care at all." People mis-state the phrase in the positive sense, so the meaning is completely contradictory to their intention.
One particularly extreme degree of indifference is not precisely expressed by "I couldn't care less": "I could care less, but I decline to make that effort."
3.11.2008 12:07pm
John (mail):
Are we all heading for parking in a driveway and driving on a parkway?
3.11.2008 12:19pm
Dan S.:
This isn't really on topic, but responding to a previous comment, the incorrect use of "I could care less" in place of "I couldn't case less" comes from correctly using the phrase in its contrary to fact form, as in "Yeah, as if I could care less." This actually has the same meaing as "I couldn't care less." However, the contrary to fact "as if" has been dropped resulting in people routinely using the incorrect "I could care less."

Dan
3.11.2008 12:48pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
I thought the new Roland Emmerich movie 10,000 BC was awful. I wish he'd get back to making awesome movies like Stargate.
3.11.2008 12:55pm
Dave in NYC:
In the same etymological vein as "atom", I note that "amorphous shape" gets 13,000+ Google hits, including a dictionary definition.
3.11.2008 1:00pm
eyesay:
Permanent guest host
3.11.2008 1:17pm
stegosaurus:
This sort of thing is common in math and science. Irrational numbers are defined using logic. Imaginary numbers are used in engineering. Today, there are several theories about multiple universes.

And adding fodder for future humor: string theory is called the "theory of everything", and the Higgs boson is called the "god particle".
3.11.2008 1:21pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
Quantum leap used to mean a major shift.

I love it when restaurants list "beef with au jus."
3.11.2008 1:36pm
matts117:
Did you hear the one about the middle ages queen who visited a cathedral &called it "awful, artificial and amusing"?

The point of the story is that all three were compliments... whereas they would be insulting today.
3.11.2008 2:03pm
Mark Eckenwiler:
"plunging to the bottom of the abyss"

abyss < abyssos (bottomless) < a- (not, without) + byssos (depth)

You can play this game all day with the hundreds of Greek-derived words starting with an alpha privativum (the alpha of privation, i.e., negation). Just don't conflate it with the alpha copulativum.
3.11.2008 2:05pm
Jeff R.:
"Head over Heels" literally describes a quite unremarkable condition.

(Another in the sub-game of words that are their own antonyms, there's "Sanction".)
3.11.2008 2:38pm
Caliban Darklock (www):
The phrase "I could care less" is sarcastic/ironic. It indicates that one could not, in fact, care less. It's along the same lines as "smooth move"... which in almost every case indicates that the move was anything but smooth.
3.11.2008 2:54pm
Kalamazoo:
"Multiple universes" is a pretty good one.
3.11.2008 3:00pm
yankev (mail):
Government largesse.
3.11.2008 3:05pm
Connie:
Western orientation.
3.11.2008 3:45pm
Jay D:
My alarm clock went off, that is, it turned on and woke me up.
3.11.2008 4:03pm
Eutychus:
"Andrea" ("manly", from Greek "aner") as a woman's name.
3.11.2008 4:05pm
Eutychus:
The poet John Ciardi used to complain about "to arrive at the middle of the ocean" as an etymological contradiction.

Arrive, from French "arriver" = "to reach the shore."
3.11.2008 4:25pm
MXE (mail):
Well, the phrase, "The earth seemed unearthly" appears in Heart of Darkness. Though of course it's not really contradictory for something to seem unlike itself.
3.11.2008 4:36pm
Libertarian1 (mail):
auto-antonym

Re-signed
Resigned
3.11.2008 4:40pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Most of the ones here are old news.
3.11.2008 4:41pm
yankev (mail):
Graphics (greek for writings) to mean pictures as opposed to written words.
3.11.2008 4:50pm
Anon Y. Mous:
This topic seems hugely insignificant.
3.11.2008 4:53pm
Tom R (mail):
Re "I could care less...". Three phrases in particular used to confuse me when I first heard them:

(a) "You can't be too careful". As a kid, I initially misinterpreted this as "You must not be too careful, it's not safe or wise", when of course it means "However careful you are, it's never 'too careful'."

(b) "All but". Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke Skywalker "Now the Jedi are all but extinct", and 8-year-old me reads this as "Are the Jedi extinct? No, they're anything but!" when of course it means "everything short of being totally/ absolutely/ officially extinct".

(c) There is a vivid Australian phrase, "I wouldn't piss on [adversary] if he was on fire". I've never quite worked out what the negation of this is. "If [my enemy] ever were on fire, I would welcome the chance to urinate thereupon, with his/her own (reasonably presumed) consent, assuming there are no other sources of extinguishing liquid available, etc, etc", perhaps?
3.11.2008 4:57pm
Evelyn Marie Blaine (mail):
Countably infinite.
3.11.2008 5:14pm
Jack (mail) (www):
stegosaurus: "Irrational" numbers are not "contrary to logic", but "incapable of being expressed as a ratio" (of two integers). So this isn't really a paradox. But I grant you multiple-universes.
3.11.2008 5:21pm
eyesay:
Dave Hardy wrote "Quantum leap used to mean a major shift." But the term was coined by Niels Bohr in 1913 to describe the fact that electrons are constrained to orbit the atomic nucleus in certain energy levels; they can't exist halfway between two energy levels, and when an electron changes energy levels, it absorbs or emits a photon. But these quantum leaps are very small. The point about a quantum leap is not that it is large, it is that (because of the laws of physics) it could not be any smaller.
3.11.2008 5:28pm
JB:
Dave Hardy: Quantum leap used to mean a major shift.

I love it when restaurants list "beef with au jus."


That's what they serve at the Maison de la Casa House.
3.11.2008 5:38pm
JB:
Which is where the hoi polloi eat.
3.11.2008 5:40pm
Connie:
Saw this on a menu recently:

Hot grilled Italian-style panini sandwiches.

(Couldn't just say "panini" in Wisconsin.)
3.11.2008 5:45pm
Connie:
When someone says they're going into "great detail," they mean they are going to list every small detail.
3.11.2008 5:47pm
eyesay:
Countably infinite is not self-contradictory. An infinite set is countable if I can describe an ordering, so that any element in the set will eventually be counted. For example, the integers could be ordered 0, 1, -1, 2, -2, 3, -3, ... and every integer will eventually be counted. Real numbers are not countable; there is no possible sequenc
3.11.2008 5:48pm
eyesay:
Never mind. I didn't intend to post that.
3.11.2008 5:48pm
Connie:
Chuck Norris counted to infinity twice.
3.11.2008 5:50pm
Chaymus (mail):
I always had trouble with the word priceless. There are movies you couldn't pay me to watch, those are priceless too.
3.11.2008 5:54pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
I'm surprised no one mentioned the auto-antonym 'oversight', which means both 'supervision' and 'failure to see' -- not quite precise opposites but surely at least 170 degrees apart in meaning.

For the specific subject of the post, how about Samuel Beckett's remark that he aimed to "eff the ineffable"?
3.11.2008 6:24pm
G. Est:
"Defend the indefensible" has over 91,000 hits on Google.
3.11.2008 6:33pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
Manufacturing anything that is not made by hand.
3.11.2008 7:12pm
K Parker (mail):
Caliban,

Yeah, right!


:-)
3.11.2008 8:25pm
yankev (mail):

Maison de la Casa House
Last time I ate there I had to stop at the ATM machine and input my PIN number just to have enough to cover the cost of the pita bread.
3.11.2008 8:29pm
Just John:
Etymological contradiction: How about "individual contribution"? "Individual" generally means one person, "without division." But "contribution" is the prefix "con-", meaning "all, together, jointly", and "-tribution", which comes from "tribus", meaning "tribe." So both parts of the noun imply more than one, while the adjective implies no more than one.

Etymological repetition: "Greenwich Village", where "-wich" means "village".
3.11.2008 8:29pm
Dan Schmutter:

(a) "You can't be too careful". As a kid, I initially misinterpreted this as "You must not be too careful, it's not safe or wise", when of course it means "However careful you are, it's never 'too careful'."


You can't put too much water in a nuclear reactor.

Dan
3.11.2008 8:36pm
Evelyn Marie Blaine (mail):
I am quite aware that there's nothing self-contradictory about a countable infinity (in the technical sense). It's just that it seems to involves a change from the etymologically basic meaning of "countable".
3.11.2008 10:44pm
Duffy Pratt (mail):
Check out some of the achievements of the demolition industry.
3.11.2008 11:02pm
Waldensian (mail):
In the vein of "Maison de la Casa House" I offer:

The La Brea Tar Pits.
3.11.2008 11:15pm
Norm:
One that always got me (although it doesn't fit the original request) was "You have your work cut out for you".

If you have your work cut out for you, shouldn't it be easier than it would have been otherwise?
3.12.2008 1:10am
Tom R (mail):
Speaking of Jedi... they can't be "knights" because they don't ride anything (bar the occasional lizard).

Just as Padme Amidala can't, by definition, be a "Senator" because she's not an elderly male!
3.13.2008 11:28pm
Connie:
We're going to utopia!
3.14.2008 11:16am