Foot & Meter: A Language Column

footmeter.jpgMr. Thursday has elected to amateurishly follow in the footsteps of Sol Steinmetz and William Safire (and countless others), and bring to you an occasional column on the use of language in the English speaking world. We shall attempt to address, as occasion leads us, both spoken and written word, and to discover and relate some of the nuance of this unnervingly anarchic language. Ambitiously, we’ll try to do all this in a fashion that can hold the interest of you, the reader.

Of the Title

Foot and meter are both prosodic terms, as they represent elements of classical poetry. Namely, a foot is a group of syllables constituting a metrical unit, whereas meter is the form that a grouping of feet may take. A determinate number of feet are present in each line for any meter.

Poetically, the foot and the meter are intricately linked, whereas in measure these two words are, generally speaking, opposed. They are basic units in rival systems of measure. It is the nature of this fascinating relationship–both enemies and friends, so to speak–that has earned Foot & Meter a role at the top of this page.

Of Beginnings

The Romans would have us believe that opposites are an excellent place to being anything, as Janus, the Roman god of doorways and beginnings is the god of both sunrise and sunset, as well. To emphasize Janus’ association with a subject and its foil, Janus was always depicted as a head with two faces looking in opposing directions. Janus is not the most well known of the Roman gods, but his bilateral head still appears surreptitiously throughout our unsuspecting society.

One such remaining form is the collection of words known as Janus words. These words, also known as contranyms, are words that serve as their own antonyms. There are not many of these words, and some verbs can be easily mistaken for them (more on that in a moment). The most common of these words at this time of the year is, in all likelihood, inoculate. This verb is generally used to articulate the preemptive treatment of patients for the flu and other common winter illnesses. However, its usage also includes the introduction of a disease into a body.

A better and comparably popular Janus word is oversight, as in the Senate’s Oversight Committee. This is an especially worrisome name for a group of high ranking decision-makers (“deciders”) as oversight varied meanings extend in ways the Senate would not be proud of, publicly. In their usage, oversight means “supervision”. However, oversight is also a mistake or an error. We’re certain the Senate Error Committee wouldn’t fly with “middle America”, though we at Mr. Thursday would like to vivaciously suggest the Senate “Whoops!” Committee to whomever is in charge of naming such things.

Other such words include sanction (“to allow permission”, and “to penalize for a violation”); cleave (“to split”, as well as “to adhere closely”); and clip (“to fasten or hold tightly”, and “to trim by cutting”).

A word that could easily be mistaken as a contranym is peruse. Peruse means “to read or examine thoroughly”, however, it is frequently misused to mean “to glance over”. This second definition is not accepted among the language experts who write dictionaries, however, if we are to use Dictionary.com as a reference, we can learn that in 1988 66% of the members of their usage panel rejected this definition, while only 58% rejected the same definition in 1999. Peruse has a chance to become a Janus word, certainly.

Future entries will try to address more culturally and socially relevant language use.

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