There is a phenomenon that occurs in almost every language, but especially frequently in Hebrew. It is a form of split polysemy whereby a single word or root can be used to connote two concepts which are opposite one another in meaning. An English example is “cleave,” which can mean to split apart (e.g. “a cloven hoof”) or to cling together (e.g. “leave the parents and cleave to the spouse”). Another is “refrain,” which can be used to indicate both “abstain from an activity” or “repeat multiple times” (e.g. in music). Other English examples are listed at https://www.grammarly.com/blog/10-verbs-contronyms/. Several names have been assigned to this linguistic peculiarity, including enantiosemy, enantiodromy (enantiodrome being the referent for an exemplar thereof), antagonymy (antagonym), contronymy (contronym), and auto-antonymy (auto-antonym)… or in Hebrew, סתירה עצמית.
The following list of examples in Hebrew is certainly not exhaustive, but does demonstrate that the phenomenon is anything but rare in the holy tongue. In each of the pairings below, the commoner meaning is listed first with the rarer afterward.
- אלהים (Elohim): (the one true) G-d; (false) deities. Psalm 82 provides an example where this word conveys both meanings in the same verse:
- Ps 82:1(a) אלהים נצב בעדת־אל G-d stands in the congregation of the mighty…
- Ps 82:1(b) בקרב אלהים ישפט in the midst of the deities1 He judges.
- ברך (barakh): to bless; to curse (euphemistically). The more usual meaning is “to bless,” and “to kneel” is also frequently in view. The antithetical meaning “to curse,” however, is attested only in 1 Kings 21:10, 13; Job 1:5, 11; 2:5, 9; and Psalm 10:3 for the latter.
- גרד (garad): to scratch; to itch. More common in Modern Hebrew than in Classical, this enantiodrome connotes both the act of scratching an itch and the state of feeling itchy which compels one to scratch.
- זנב (zanav): tail (as a noun); to cut off the tail (as a verb), to cut off the rear flank (in military jargon). In this example, one might call to mind the English verbal exemplar “seed,” which means both “to plant” (put seeds into the ground) and “to remove seeds from a plant (e.g. seeded grapes).
- חטא (chata’): to sin (miss the mark, go astray); to cleanse (from sin). The second meaning seems to only be tenable in the piel and hithpael binyanim (stems). In Modern Hebrew, the word for disinfectant comes from this same root, i.e. חיטוי (chitui).
- קלס (qalas): to defame, mock, scoff, ridicule; to praise. The former is the only meaning attested in the Tanakh, but in other Hebrew literature, it can be found with the opposite meaning “to praise.”
- סקל (saqal): to throw stones at (all stems); to remove stones from (qal and piel stems only).
- שכח (shakhach): to forget; renowned, widepread. The Aramaic cognate שכך is likewise enantiodromic.
- שרש (sharash): to take root; to uproot, to sever from the roots. Both meanings are attested in the Tanakh. The former can be seen in Isaiah 27:6; 40:24; Jeremiah 12:2; Psalm 80:9; and Job 5:3; and the passages where the latter meaning is conveyed are Psalm 52:5 and Job 31:8, 12. The Hebrew grammatical term שֹׁ֫רֶשׁ (shoresh) is used to indicate the root of a derived form.
This phenomenon is an excellent example of why context is so important, and why translation methods wherein every instance of a Hebrew root is translated exactly the same are problematic. Words in isolation have semantic domains, i.e. ranges of meaning; but in actual usage, the context (surrounding words, sentences, paragraphs, themes, etc.) dictate which possible meanings are viable and which are not applicable in a particular instance.
In addition, there is also the Semitic phenomenon at play whereby Hebrew words convey both a “positive charge” and a “negative charge” simultaneously. Boman observes that in Hebrew, there is no stasis. In every word conveying a person or thing at rest, the motion from which it is resting is implied (p. 31). For example:
- עלל (alal): to enter; to exit. In Hebraic thought, entering one space (the positive charge) involves exiting another (the negative charge), thus both meanings are conveyed simultaneously via the same word.
- בּוֹא (bo): to come; to go. As in the previous entry, in order to be coming to one location, one must be at the same time in the process of leaving another location. It is a matter of perspective whether the word בּוֹא is to be translated as “come” or “go.” “Come” is the positive charge, and “go” is the negative in this example.
Likewise, filling one vessel implies drawing from (or emptying, to some extent) another. I welcome readers to supply any more exemplars which you have observed, of either type, in the comments.
- Though this is the usual translation, אלהים could, admittedly, also be translated “mighty ones” in this passage; there are, however, many instances where אלהים is clearly intended to be understood as “false deities” rather than being given a positive rendering (“G-d” or “mighty ones”).
MORE TO READ
Almagor-Ramon, Ruth. Rega shel Ivrit. Jerusalem: Tzivonim Publishing, 2001.
Boman, Thorleif. Das hebräische Denken im Verleich mit dem Griechishen. 2nd Edition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1954.
Joki, Kimberly. “10 Verbs that are Contronyms.” Grammarly Blog. 2 Dec 2015. Online: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/10-verbs-contronyms/.
Mosenkis, Dan. “The Curious Contronym.” Forward. 18 Mar 2005. Online: http://forward.com/articles/3132/the-curious-contronym/
Zuckermann, Ghil’ad. Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change; New York, N.Y.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.