Translation: Words with special meaning in English

Translators are just like explorers, and the texts they need to translate as new lands waiting to be discovered. Their process of translating the texts from beginning to end is like an explorer’s journey through a strange land which is full of unexpected risks and dangers, as those words with tricky meaning in the text to be translated. In this post, we will explore typical examples of English words with opposite meanings depending on different context or plural form that a translator certainly has to pay attention to in the process of translating.

1. Context-based

Auto-antonyms or contraonyms are words with multiple meanings, in which one meaning opposes the other. Auto-antonyms and contraonyms are relatively new terms, introduced by Joseph Twadell Shipley and Jack Herring a few decades ago (in 1960 and 1962, respectively).

For examples:

  • Comprise means (1): to have somebody/something as parts or members; (2): to be the parts or members that form something
  • Example sentence:

1. The house consists of two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. (1)
2. Older people comprise a large proportion of those living in poverty. (2)

  • Dust means, (1): to remove dirt from; (2): to cover something with fine powder
  • Example sentence:

1. I was dusting in the bedroom when the phone rang. (1)

2. Dust the cake with sugar.

  • Oversight means (1): the state of being in charge of somebody/something; (2): an unintentional failure to notice or do something.

1. This committee has oversight of finance and general policy. (1)

2. Employees were paid late due to an oversight in the accounting department.

2. Regional varieties

There are also word with different, even completely opposite meanings in different variants of English, for example:

Table, as in table a debate, means to discuss and debate in British English, but it means to stop discussing and debating in American English. There is an interesting historical anecdote during World War II about a group of British officers who were angry and frustrated because they wanted to table a proposal, but the other group of American officers remained silent, not uttering a word (because the Americans thought “table” was to stop discussing).

Pants, a “classic” example, in American English means a piece of clothing that covers the lower part of the body from the waist to the feet, consisting of two cylinder-shaped parts, one for each leg, that are joined at the top, but in British English means a piece of underwear covering the area between the waist and the tops of the legs.

First, in the first floor, means the first floor in American English but the second floor in British English (so what is the first floor? it’s the ground floor).

3. Singular or Plural

The third case is that English words change completely in meaning when in plural form, for example:

Spectacle, means a sight or view that is very impressive to look at, is an abstract word, but spectacles means a pair of glasses, a word for a concrete object.

Wood, means a type of material hard material that is used to build or make things with, but woods means an area of land covered with a thick growth of trees.

Or force, means strength or energy as an attribute of physical action or movement, while forces means the army, navy and air force.

Above are some common examples of English words with different or even opposite meanings. Translators should look up carefully for these words to avoid mistranslation, which can cause confusion for readers.