English has a whole category of words called “contronyms” — words that have opposing definitions, such as “cleave” meaning both join and cut apart,”sanction” meaning both allow and prohibit, and, to the consternation of many of us, “literally” meaning both actually and figuratively. (See more contronyms at Mental Floss and Daily Writing Tips.)
But English also has descriptive phrases that consist of seemingly opposite adverbs + adjectives, such as:
- This cake is awfully good.
- Her sister is terribly nice.
- This hugely insignificant change won’t affect anything.
- These immensely small subatomic particles were discovered only recently.
- The blue shirt is a little big on you.
- That couch the Bundys bought at the flea market is pretty ugly.
I’m thinking here about phrases used without irony, sarcasm or poetic license. I wondered whether this phenomenon has a name, so I went digging (figuratively) to find out. I looked in books, I looked online, I asked around. Continue reading