Three contronyms

A word that can have diametrically opposed meanings, depending on the context, can’t be translated with a one-size-fits-all solution into a language where different words are used for those meanings.

There are a few standard ones in English that people usually know. “John’s left” – is he the one still remaining, or the one who went away? Cleave can mean to stick to or to split from. Hire and rent can apply to both parties. And there are three common Dutch verbs that have two opposing meanings in English. So think which one you mean!

  • leren => to learn or to teach
  • lenen => to lend or to borrow
  • brengen => to bring or to take

There’s a logic to all of these: different verbs for the giving (lend, teach) and receiving (borrow, learn) aspects, or the point of view: you take your kids to school (from where you are now), but as far as the school is concerned you’d be bringing them.

Prevalence: high. They’re three fairly common words, after all.
Frequency: high. The word that looks more like the Dutch one gets used regularly for both directions.
Native: no. We’re used to the directionality of these concepts having a specific word. Although (before anyone points it out to me) it’s interesting to note that dialect and slang usage can on occasion use all three the Dutch way!

Published by Mike Wilkinson

Twenty years of translating and editing Dutch into English, as well as writing and publishing in English.

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