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On Venn diagrams, moles, contronyms, and James Joyce


By Andrei Z.Published 20 days ago Updated 20 days ago 4 min read

I’m not going to talk about Venn diagrams. For those interested, take a look elsewhere. Or another elsewhere (the latter is not very informative, and it rather serves the purpose of convincingly showing that science is a form of art; I also drop a screenshot below for those who are lazy to open unknown hyperlinks).

As I’m not talking about Venn diagrams, let’s directly move on to the next question. Are there moles on your body? in your garden? among people you think you know? You never know. It is the Great Moles Uncertainty Principle. Maybe even a conspiracy, a coup. They may hide beneath your tulips flower beds, lurk in your belly fat folds, skulk on the pages of your school science textbooks. Look out! Do they wish you no harm? Are they benign? It’s better to make an appointment with a dermatologist and seek their advice.

Anyway, what is wrong with this language? I believe every language has homonyms. But it feels like English is outpacing its tribesmen in this verbal contest.

English is not my native language. As a matter of fact, it’s not even my second language. Or, if I have two firsts, does it make it a second? One second, I’m trying to resolve this dilemma [scratching my head while thinking]. Where am I heading with this? I’m pretty much just drifting along. One essential thought here is that English is the perfect language for exercising (exorcising) wordplay. When my spirits are down, when I find myself right in the middle of an existential crisis, witty-funny wordplays, puns, and equivoques come to my rescue. So, I’m grateful to all the moles out there, as long as they’re not cancerous. Yet, I’m somewhat puzzled: why? Are there not enough combinations of letters and sounds to draw a line between a mole, a mole, a mole, and a mole? For God’s sake!

Another intriguing phenomenon for me is contronyms. I could think of only one example of a contronym in Belarusian and Russian (most probably, there should be a few more, but even my friend who specializes in linguistics could not recall any). English, on the contrary, has quite a lot of them. A quick search on the web revealed to me that other languages—e.g., German, French, Spanish, and Chinese—are also guilty of this sin. A random post on Instagram I came across a while ago claims that there are 128 contronyms in English, almost 1.5 times more than in every other language combined. It is unconfirmed information as I couldn’t find any proof that these numbers are correct; several sources I uncovered provide a list of 75 contronyms in the English language. But it definitely is not an exhaustive list, as even I can give several more examples.

Diving deeper into this subject certainly would prove to be an exciting enterprise. Semantics, geography, and anatomy of words: it sounds almost like an adventure, doesn’t it? But here, I would provide just a few observations. The term ‘contronym’ was coined in 1962 (by Jack Herring). Also, contronyms can be referred to as auto-antonyms, or Janus words. How did they come into existence in the first place? I am not an expert, so I’ll give only some general considerations. One of the simplest explanations one can come up with is the Atlantic Ocean. Brits and Americans seem to have their own opinions about the meanings of certain words. How much is a dollop? You tell me! Another issue is a general tendency of the languages to shift perspectives, reshape, and transform. My guess is that today’s young people play a key role here. Eager to be unique and interesting, we turn our vocab upside down, repurpose and recycle it (it’s merely my speculations though). And bad, sick, and wicked begin to mean good, great, and excellent. We need more contradictions! Because otherwise, this world is egregiously boring. Now, how chuffed are you with my scribbles?

Finally, I want to talk a little bit about James Joyce’s book, Finnegans Wake. I bought the book for 5 Swiss francs (incredibly super cheap!) in a small lovely bookshop in Lausanne. It won me over due to its alluring blurb on the back cover.

—This ‘language’ is based on English vocabulary and syntax but, at the same time, self-consciously designed to function as a pun machine with an astonishing capacity for resisting singularity of meaning—

Eventually, I managed to read only a General Introduction by Len Platt (some UK professor of Modern Literature) and the first fourteen pages of the novel itself. I was not prepared for that. See for yourself.

And it’s 627 pages more just like this one! There are numerous research (and non-research) articles written about this mind-blowing masterpiece. I wonder how many students in English literature did suffer from this book? Have you read it? Did I find it indigestible because I’m not a native speaker? Or is it a challenging read for pretty much everybody, regardless of their background, age, nationality, and worldview? A book for the minority of literature gurus.

Anyway, I found an almost convincing list of reasons on Quora explaining why everybody needs to read Finnegans Wake before the time for their own wake comes.

Are you convinced? Me too.

### ### ###

P.S. This essay was inspired by a post on Math/Science Jokes & Puns (or GTFO!) Facebook group.


About the Creator

Andrei Z.


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Comments (16)

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  • ghaderm6 days ago

    So proud of you congratulations on top stories🥰

  • Mackenzie Davis12 days ago

    Dude my husband read the page from Finnegan’s Wake aloud to me (after me failing to make any sense of it and giving up) and it sounded beautiful! Like an irishman giving a grand ol’ speech in a pub or at a wake, or a sailor rambling on about his perspective on life’s purpose. I think it must have been written for the working man, not the literary scholar. Wow, I want to read the whole thing now. This essay was fascinating. I love the way you write. The humor is there along with pointed facts and info. I’m a sucker for anything about language and your unique perspective on English as a second (third?) language really added a lot to your research and theories about homonyms and contronyms. As always, a very enjoyable read, and lots to think about. I think I’ll give it another read too. 🙃😊

  • Pauline Fountain18 days ago

    I can’t believe I haven’t subscribed before! Congratulations on the Top Story. Yes I read ‘Finnegans Wake’ many years ago and enjoyed the struggle I guess. Though I had to give up the battle with Ulysses. And what a flip after ‘Ulysses’ and before ‘Finnegans Wake’ when with ‘Dubliners’ it was found controversial due to the material in the stories being obvious and accessible, available to even the most casual readers and reviewers. Go figure?! I am thankful that you avoided my dread of Venn Diagrams! A throwback to my high school maths nightmares. I thoroughly enjoyed this - from one that also gains much joy from word play. Pauline 🌸 Pauline 🌸

  • Komal18 days ago

    very interesting!

  • Heather Hubler19 days ago

    I was drawn in by the randomness of the title and was not disappointed by the content. And no, I've no interest in reading Joyce's work as I read for my own pleasure, and that has never seemed like a pleasure to me, lol. This was such a great quirky, enlightening piece to go with my morning coffee :) Congratulations on Top Story!

  • River Joy19 days ago

    This was super interesting, and a great read. Well done! Congrats on the top story!

  • Loved the subject of this article. I was harkened here by Venn diagrams and James Joyce. Now I think I'm going to incorporate some contronyms in class this week. Congratulations on Top Story!

  • Naomi Gold19 days ago

    This was a delightful read. I have no desire to attempt to read Finnegan’s Wake. English is the only language I speak or read, and it’s very complicated. I sometimes wonder if I would be a better writer if I had a different language.

  • Inkweaver20 days ago

    If anyone wants to read my stories visit my profile❤️❤️

  • Inkweaver20 days ago


  • Dana Stewart20 days ago

    Such a fun, entertaining read! The Quora list is hilarious! I MIGHT try to read Finnegan’s Wake again. Congratulations on Top Story!

  • Gina C.20 days ago

    Whoa! Very interesting read! Congratulations on Top Story! 🤗

  • Dana Crandell20 days ago

    A fun read! Congratulations on Top Story!

  • Congratulations on your Top Story

  • Lots of interesting jumping off points and rabbit holes to explore here, great ide and article

  • Kendall Defoe20 days ago

    I spent one summer reading Anthony Burgess' "A Shorter Finnegans Wake" (a kind of pared down version of the original with certain guide posts and notes). I would recommend it if you can find it. Not that it will clear everything up...but you might find yourself thinking like the great Irishman himself. Thank you for this piece!

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