Writing for Business

Apr 4 2013   12:38PM GMT

Can you figure out what this sentence means? (No, you can’t.)

Ivy Wigmore Ivy Wigmore Profile: Ivy Wigmore

What does this sentence mean?
As a result of the accountant’s oversight, the company was sanctioned.

a. The company got approval because the accountant missed something.
b. The company was penalized because the accountant missed something.
c. The company got approval because the accountant was keeping an eye on things.
d. The company was penalized because the accountant was keeping an eye on things.

Answer: It’s impossible to know.

Both oversight and sanction are contranyms: words that have two opposite meanings. Contranyms are a special example of polysemy, which describes things with multiple related (in this case contrary) meanings.

Mental Floss explains:

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” “Oversee,” from Old English ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means ‘supervise’ (medieval Latin for the same thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’) “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’

Contranyms are also known as auto-antonyms, and Janus words, for the two-faced god:

In ancient Roman religion and myth, Janus (Latin: Ianus) is the god of beginnings and transitions,[1] thence also of gates, doors, passages, endings and time. He is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. The Romans named the month of January (Ianuarius) in his honor.

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