May 31, 2005


My partner Barbara is one of the most careful and precise speakers I know, and I just heard her refer to a brand new computer for somebody that she had seen "in the department office unpacked." Almost holding my breath, I asked her whether the carton was still sealed. "Yes," she said, puzzled why I would ask that (the computer is of no interest to me; it is sitting in a department office 35 miles away from where I work and had only peripherally come into the conversation). But of course you regular Language Log readers will know what had engaged my interest. Her answer confirmed that she had meant it was still un-unpacked. Thus was I finally convinced in a few seconds that we have a lexical phenomenon here, not a sporadic error heard occasionally here and there. Unpacked sometimes means "not in a state of having been packed" and sometimes (even for Barbara) it means "not in a state of having had the packing operation undone", i.e., "not in a state of having been unpacked".

But this is not the first autoantonymous lexical item (word serving as its own opposite), even if we ignore the existence of idioms like could care less (= couldn't care less). Sanctioning something can mean either permitting it or setting penalties for it; renting an apartment can mean either being a tenant or being a landlord; and there are other examples. They don't occur to me right now, but I once heard the guys on Car Talk come up with a dozen of them, and other Language Log contributors will soon come up with plenty. You'll see. Watch this space.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at May 31, 2005 01:29 PM