Auto-antonyms

Once in a while a word comes to have opposite meanings. The adjective especioso/specious is such a word. Compare the pairs of definitions in the 1913 Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary and the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española:

1. Apparently right; superficially fair, just, or correct, but not so in reality; appearing well at first view; plausible; as, specious reasoning; a specious argument.
2. Presenting a pleasing appearance; pleasing in form or look; showy.

1. Hermoso, precioso, perfecto.
2. Aparente, engañoso.

Here are the main translations that Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary gave for speciōsus:

Good-looking, showy, handsome, beautiful, splendid, brilliant.

In a secondary definition of the Latin adjective we see the genesis, even in Roman times, of the negative sense:

Well-sounding, plausible, specious.

In other words, something especioso/specious looks pleasant enough and is therefore plausible (i.e. applaudable), but someone has created the attractive appearance as a way to hide the truth.

The negative sense of specious has driven out the ‘showy’ one in modern English, but apparently not in Spanish, where the DRAE gives the positive definition first. And botanists have preserved the positive sense in species names like Ungnadia speciosa and Oenothera speciosa.

As for Latin speciōsus itself, that adjective was based on the root found in the verb specere ‘to look at,’ with past participle spectus, about which much more could be said.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Jul 02, 2016 @ 08:04:40

    These days, it doesn’t take much scanning of the horizon to find multiple examples of specious arguments, statements, and explanations. What surprised me was the opposite meaning. I had no idea.

    While poking around, I was surprised to find varnish on the page for “specious.” There’s a note that the “figurative sense of ‘specious gloss, pretense,’ is recorded from 1560s.” That makes sense of the phrase “the unvarnished truth.” And, if true, how ironic that varnish first was used in modern Benghazi, where speciousity still is running rampant.

    On a completely different note, I saw a sign recently that advertised servicio de limpiando. The English word “limpid” came to mind immediately, and by the time I had it all sorted out, it seemed I’d had my first experience of making a Spanish-English word connection. Is that right?

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 02, 2016 @ 09:59:58

      I could go on a rant about incredible, which in recent years has come to be used primarily about things so common and mundane that you have no reason not to believe them.

      That’s an unexpected connection you found to Benghazi. Speciousness, thy name is politics.

      Congratulations on your first experience making a Spanish-English word connection. Spanish limpiar and English limpid both go back to the Latin limpidus that meant ‘clear, bright, transparent.’ The phrase servicio de limpiando doesn’t strike me as natural Spanish but rather as an imperfect translation of cleaning service.

      Reply

  2. Maria F.
    Jul 17, 2016 @ 11:25:15

    Yes, “limpiando” is not right, it should have said ‘limpiado’, or for that matter ‘limpieza’ which is the noun (Cleaning Service=Servicio de Limpieza) Oh well.

    ‘Especioso’ is not even used here, albeit in scientific names such as the ones you posted.

    In a way, I’m glad we don’t deal with this double meanings. Let Spain fight over them.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jul 17, 2016 @ 11:29:36

      And English has largely opted for just one meaning as well, the “apparently but not really right’ one.

      Reply

      • Maria F.
        Jul 17, 2016 @ 12:00:03

        I agree, American English in particular adds dozens of meanings that go beyond the original or intended ones. I agree this is the reason uneducated foreigners are at a terrible disadvantage. Thank goodness, since young, I collected a couple of American idiomatic phrases books which helped me be on the look-out. Everyone planing to live/work in the U.S. should read these. Also, living there is the best way to learn, except that in my case I had already read books about the ‘double meaning’ in many words.

        Reply

        • Maria F.
          Jul 17, 2016 @ 12:59:38

          This is one of the little books I went by, ‘Le Mot Juste’:

          https://www.amazon.com/Mot-Juste-Dictionary-Classical-Foreign/dp/0679734554

          , although it covers various languages, it’s really good.

          Imagine, (this is an Italian term):

          “A ‘dilettante’ is an amateur, particularly an amateur lover of the arts, but there is a subtler nuance to the word. It also means that this amateur is one who approaches the subject with little or no serious study, and may well pretend to have more knowledge than he actually has.

          Apparently this book is still in print.

          Reply

        • Steve Schwartzman
          Jul 22, 2016 @ 06:16:17

          It’s in human nature to add meanings to a word. Because of technology, especially computers, English in recent years has been in the forefront of repurposing words, e.g. window, mouse, folder—some of which other languages have borrowed outright.

          Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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