When I was growing up, one of my favorite fictional characters was a ditzy maid with a genuine knack for baking named Amelia Bedelia. She was the creation of author Peggy Parish, a teacher who was inspired by observing her real life class of 3rd grade students as they discovered that many of our English words have multiple meanings, often leading to confusion.
In the books, Amelia is usually given a list of chores to complete by Mrs. Rogers, her slightly fussy employer. Amelia tries to follow the instructions to the letter: change the towels (she changes them by cutting huge holes all over the towels), dust the furniture (she covers the sofa and armchair in the living room with dusting powder), draw the drapes (she sketches out a picture of the curtains), and so on. Mr. and Mrs. Rogers come home, and they’re appalled by the absurd manner in which Amelia has completed her chores. Her only saving grace is the lemon meringue pie Amelia thought to bake as a surprise for her employers.
In fact, her baking is so remarkably delicious, Mrs. Rogers decides that Amelia is worth keeping around. She would just have to change the way she instructed her maid, telling her to undust the furniture and close the drapes instead.
These books are fun and silly and great for early readers, but they also highlight the difficulties many people have who are new to the English language. I know that my youngest son who initially began to learn English when he was 5-years old didn’t find these books all that funny when he was first introduced to them. Perhaps that’s because he related more to Amelia than to Mrs. Rogers. He didn’t get the nuances of Amelia’s mistakes. He probably thought, “Yeah, if somebody told me to dress a chicken for supper I might also sew a little chicken-sized lederhosen for it instead of filling the cavity with breadcrumbs. This place is crazy!”
Reading the stories of the sweet and simple Amelia Bedelia and reflecting on the complex intricacies of our language reminds me of a word I recently learned: contronym, which means a word with two opposite meanings. Not just multiple meanings, mind you…opposite meanings. Hang on to your bonnet, Amelia!
For example, take the halfway gruesome word cleave. It can mean “to cling closely,” such as the verse in Genesis: “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife; and they shall be one flesh.” But it can also mean “to split or divide,” such as the verse in the Book of Psalms: “Our bones are scattered at the grave's mouth, as when one cuts and cleaves wood upon the earth.”
Or how about the contronym overlook? It can mean “to inspect,” as when a teacher overlooks a student’s progress. But it can also mean “to fail to notice,” as when a student overlooks the errors in his math homework.
The key to knowing which meaning the writer intends for each of these words can be found in the context. Without the words and phrases around cleave, the reader is at a loss. Do you want to get close to me or cut me in half? That’s an important distinction, so the context is vital.
Most of us don’t realize how often we analyze context—background and circumstances—to establish understanding, but we do it all day long. And without this skill, our relationships remain shallow and lack authenticity. Without seeking to understand the context of our fellow humans, we run the risk of being perpetually offended, of judging mercilessly, and of neglecting the value of others. Because, although they may not be able to bake a lemon meringue pie as well as Amelia Bedelia can, they still have so much to offer.