Tuesday, February 22, 2011

If There Isn't, I Want to Nominate "Dissynonym."

I've been curious lately if there's an official term for a word which, colloquially, is used to mean the exact opposite of what it actually means. And I'm not referring to intentionally ironic slang, like the way people used to say "bad" to mean "good." I'm more interested in cases where the speaker is likely not even aware of what they're doing, as with the word "literally," say. In fact, I could include just about any word or phrase which is intended to assert the veracity of something but which, in informal usage, doesn't. As in the example below:

I swear*, this burrito last night was literally** like a hundred pounds. Seriously***, it would have taken fifty people to finish it, I shit you not****.

*I don't swear.
***Not seriously
****I totally shit you. Figuratively.

I don't normally like to swear on my blog, but if any young kid made it past the phrase "intended to assert the veracity," he's earned it.

So does anyone know if there's a term for this? Can anyone think of other examples?

**UPDATE** CONTRONYM! A word which is its own antonym. Apparently "literally" may just be on its way to becoming a solid contronym. Like "cleave," which can mean both "cling to" or "split."
I love that I know this word now. Thanks, internet! Specifically, thanks Aaron Zenz, who pointed me toward a great Slate article. An article which points out that while I'm bugged by this use of "literally," I've been ignoring the same misuse of "really."


Peter Underhill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Underhill said...

Antonym is a word that is opposite, like the antonym for top is bottom etc., but I don't think it'd work in this case. I like your word 'Dissynonym'.
How about alternym?

How do you know this kid's going to be a 'he'?

Zach Franzen said...

Solecism is a syntax error. I'm not sure it would qualify. Malapropism presupposes a similar sounding substitution, and I don't think that would work for what you described. Some of the examples to which you refer might simply be hyperbole. The others probably fall under the wider reaching term: Barbarism (wouldn't they?). Still, perhaps "Dissynonym" could bridge a classification gap.

Adam Rex said...

The examples I give are certainly all forms of hyperbole, though they're strange ones in my opinion. They're like hyperbole modifiers, used to assert that the base hyperbole is in fact NOT hyperbole in order to be more hyperbolic.

Though from anecdotal evidence I've come to believe that many of the people misusing the word "literally" in particular are in fact not aware of the word's actual meaning. They've maybe just heard others use it and assumed it was employed solely for emphasis.

Adam Rex said...

I had to look up barbarism, by the way. I don't think it applies here, though, unless my dictionary's definition was too narrow: a word or expression that is badly formed according to traditional rules, for example a word made from elements of different languages.

Z-Kids said...

Heard a great episode of "A Way With Words" dealing with this once...

Literally is used as an "intensifier"... no different than saying "He's really attached to his ipod." Or "She nearly died of embarrassment." Chances are he's not connected to an ipod - not for REAL. And truth be told, she wasn't anywhere NEAR death. They're just intensifiers. People tend to single out "Literally" and let the dozens of other examples slide.

You might be looking for the word "Contronym."

Good article here: http://www.slate.com/id/2129105/

Cheers Adam -- You truly are the bomb! Aaron

Brian Biggs said...

I hear people this and I literally want to jump out a window.

No really, I remember watching the local news a while back and they were newsing about the hot weather. Someone, a local, says to the camera "it literally feels like 150 degrees out here." The reporter, bless her, said "no, you don't mean literally; that's hyperbole."

And the woman just stared at her. I thought her head was literally gonna explode. I was laughing so hard I thought I was dying. Literally dying.

Erin McGuire said...

If you haven't heard it already, David Cross has a great bit about misusing "literally" instead of "figuratively"


Adam Rex said...

Thanks, Internet! What a great batch of answers. I'm really pleased to know the word "contronym" now, and I loved that David Cross clip. I should go update the original post now.

Z-Kids said...

Kept thinking about this all day... I suspect even the word "very" has its root in "truthy" origins like "verity" and "veracity." I find it interesting that "literally" is the only intensifier that gets singled out as problematic.

Jason Michels said...

I keep meaning to come back and comment about this. People often use the phrase "I'm sure" in the opposite way from its literal meaning. If you ask me whether it's warm outside and I answer "I'm sure it is," then the phrase "I'm sure" means that I haven't actually checked. If I was really sure that it was warm then I would simply say "yes it is."

Adam Rex said...

Yeah, good one, Jason. It wouldn't kill any of us to say "I expect it is," or something similar.