God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Luck, Omens, and Other Bipolar Words

“Luck” is an interesting word in English, because people can have “good luck” or “bad luck,” but if they are “lucky” it only means “good luck.” That is, the word “luck” can refer to positive or negative things, but in order to mean something negative, it has to be qualified, either explicitly or by context.

“Omen” works pretty much the same way, except in the opposite direction, at least in my dialect. An “omen” is ominous and foreboding by default, but there are “good omens” as well as “bad omens.”

We learn at least two lessons from these observations.

First, it’s not hard to imagine a language that has words for “luck” and “omen” but whose default meanings are reversed. For convenience, we can call such a language English-B, and call the words luck-B and omen-B. The English-B phrase “good luck-B” should (probably) be translated “good luck” into English, and the English-B phrase “bad luck-B” should (again, probably) be “bad luck,” but what should be done with “luck-B”? Remember, in English-B it means “bad luck,” but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing as “bad luck-B.”

Secondly, we see more generally that words can have default meanings that can be overridden overtly or covertly by context.

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October 5, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. Nice post. I’m always intrigued by the ways words work beyond dictionary descriptions. Another example is that some English verbs can only take certain kinds of subjects. “Open” can take a patient (something acted upon), as in “The door opened.” “Soothe” cannot: *”John soothed” (meaning “John was soothed”.) There’s no science behind this at all—it’s purely conventional and anyone learning English has to learn these semantic roles by heart.

    Comment by ktdickinson | October 21, 2009 | Reply

    • There’s no science behind this at all—it’s purely conventional and anyone learning English has to learn these semantic roles by heart.

      I don’t think it’s entirely true that there’s no science behind it. Frequently what seems arbitrary at first glance has underlying order.

      In this case, one way to see the order is to look at opposites. Regarding:

      “Open” can take a patient (something acted upon), as in “The door opened.” “Soothe” cannot: *”John soothed” (meaning “John was soothed”.)

      “Close” works like “open,” and “upset”/”antagonize”/etc. work like “soothe.”

      Comment by Joel H. | October 21, 2009 | Reply

  2. Indeed, Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alternatives (1993) describes a huge number of verb classes.

    Comment by Dannii | October 22, 2009 | Reply


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