Dialectal Self-Antonyms and Lexical Differences

I was recently watching an old episode of The West Wing, and a character was recounting a story from his youth. He said “I was babysitting for my sister”. It eventually became apparent that he meant he was caring for his sister while his parents were away.

In Canada (or at least on this coast), we would say “I was babysitting my sister”. If we added the “for”, it would imply that we were replacing the sister as babysitter or caregiver, as in “I was caring for children on my sister’s behalf”.

When I lived in Ireland, an American colleague and I were confused by an email from a British colleague. He said something like “let’s table that discussion”. We wanted to talk about the issue, so we were taken aback. We eventually discovered that the verb ‘table’ means opposite things on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

Being writers, we even came up with a term for this rare phenomenon:

dialectal self-antonym – Applied when a word has opposite or wildly divergent meanings depending on which country or region it is used in. For example, in Britain the verb “to table” means to “add to an agenda” while in North America it means “to remove from consideration indefinitely”. For another example, the adjective “homely” when used in North America is applied to a person who is “plain or unattractive in appearance”. In Britain, the same word is used to mean “comfortable or cozy, like at home”.

This may win the prize for least cool post of the month. But then, the month is still young.


  1. What about non-dialectical self-antonyms? Within our own country, we have “cleave”, which can mean “to split apart” or “to cling (to)”.

    And, if we’re willing to play with usage a bit, we have “fast”. As an adjective, it can mean “moving at high speed”. As an adverb (e.g. “The boat was tied fast”), it can mean “not moving at all”.

    Sorry, the needle on my geek-o-meter just broke…back in a jif.

  2. It has been said that language is an evolution. That’s obviously wrong, as language is not “evolving” towards anything in particular. If anything, we’re devolving the language. The Baby Boomers first noticed when they were no longer able to decipher the context of “bad.” It would be interesting to look forward, say, 400 years and see where our precious English is. Probably mutated to oblivion using words such as “shizz-nit” and “scrilla.” I don’t know for sure, but I think Spanish has a similar rap. See a Puerto Rican trying to talk to a Mexican in Spanish – you’ll see what I mean.

  3. Oh. That is interesting. I had this word today for the first time in a mail of mine and took it the british way. I have to mail back to the person if he meant it the other way (what could be as possible) 😐

    Thanks for bringing this up just today.

  4. i’m on the US east coast and we’d say “babysitting my sister” too.
    i’d probably assume “babysitting for my sister” meant the same thing you thought it did.

  5. I’ve only heard babysitting my sister anywhere that I have been in Canada.

    I think I’ve already blogged about dinner and supper on the West Coast. No one says supper here.

    A British woman at work was telling me that in one area of England, the people say, “I’m under the doctor”, when they have to go visit the doctor. Yeah, you can imagine what that makes me think of 🙂

  6. Olaf-

    Even evolution isn’t evolving toward anything.

    That’s the wonderous bit. No goal.

    Just change, slowly, in the general direction of success, or fitness.

    As measured by the number of your babies that have babies, and on and on.

    As relates to language?
    Hmm…I’d say a word’s “fitness” is not how good it is, but how much it’s used.

    Evolution isn’t a very interesting model for some language changes…spin comes to mind(e.g. growing the company in a partnership with stakeholders).

    But it’s fascinating to think of how linguists can trace ancient cultural handoffs through similar words.

    I guess subtle slang variation is a faster-paced metre for change.

  7. I muse on the word “pontificating”, to speak like a pope. If a protestant says this, it is an insult: the speaker is babbling longwinded nonsense. If a catholic says it, it should be the highest of compliments: the pope is infallible.

  8. I used to tell this British girl I knew that she was “quite” pretty. I meant “very”; she understood “sort of” or “a little”. I used to tell her that frequently. Those lexical differences can really bite you in the ass.

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