Taking care of people

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Today's Tank McNamara features an idiom with two very different meanings:


There are a number of words like sanction and table that are in some sense auto-opposites. And it's common to invert the emotional valence of terms like sick or queer. But this is the first time that I've had an unironically self-inverting phrase brought to my attention, as far as I can recall.

Yesterday's Doonesbury explored an expression that has only one conventional meaning, but might naively be interpreted in a very different way:

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  1. Damien Hall said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 8:57 am

    You probably didn't say this in order to avoid over-complicating the sentence and diluting the thrust of the post – but sanction and table are auto-opposites in different ways, really. Sanction is definitely an auto-opposite within each of both British and American English, in that sentence (1) means the same thing (I think) in both:

    (1) Parking on this street is sanctioned by the Philadelphia Parking Authority, so I received no sanction for leaving my car there all day.

    That is, the PPA allows people to park on the street, so the driver was not punished for doing so.

    Sentence (2), however, only really makes sense in American English:

    (2) That briefing paper was not discussed; it was tabled.

    In British English, the verb table means 'introduce for discussion', not 'remove from the agenda', as in American English. So sentence (3) only really makes sense in British English:

    (3) That briefing paper had been tabled, and therefore was discussed.

    So, whereas the auto-opposite meanings of sanction are both contained within each variety, the auto-opposite meanings of table are (I think) only clear if you're familiar with both varieties. Is this true?

    [(myl) That's how I understand the situation.]

  2. Scott said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    Watch the episode of Father Ted called "The Plague" (I'm not sure whether http://www.channel4.com/programmes/4od is available to non-UKers, but you can give it a shot). In it, a man named Tom promises to "take care" of Ted's rabbits, with ensuing comedy.

  3. Dan T. said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 9:54 am

    It says it's not available in my area (after making me go through several clicks to get to an episode, confirm that I at least claim to be of legal age to view adult content, and select "Play").

  4. Roger Lustig said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 10:10 am

    Remember when Bush II announced that if the Valerie Plame leak had come from the White House, whoever had done it would be "taken care of"?

    Lo and behold, he was–commutation/pardon and all!

  5. BobH said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    There was a sequence like this in Pulp Fiction. Jules (Jackson) and Vincent (Travolta) are hit men talking about their boss Marcellus and his wife Mia:

    VINCENT: Well, Marcellus is leaving for Florida and when he's gone he wants me to take care of Mia.

    JULES: Take care of her? [Making a gun out of his finger and placing it to his head]

    VINCENT: Not that! Taker her out. Show her a good time. Don't let her get lonely.

  6. anon said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 11:39 am

    Which leads to the two meanings of "take her out."

  7. Tamara said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 11:56 am

    My favorite auto-opposite is "off", which I didn't realize was an auto-opposite until my husband, who is a non-native speaker of English, got seriously confused when I said one day:

    "The fire alarm went off and we can't go back inside until the firemen come and turn the alarm off."

  8. David L said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    The difference between US and British tables has always puzzled me. To table (UK) an item can be taken to mean 'put the item on the table,' i.e. open it to discussion. But then how does table (US) work? It means to take something out of discussion and (presumably) put it away somewhere out of the daylight. Off the table and into a cupboard, for instance.

    [(myl) Cupboard? No, in the U.S. a subject that's "tabled" is put (metaphorically) onto this kind of table, perhaps to be picked up again for discussion later, and perhaps not:

    Hope that helps.]

    So I propose that Americans should henceforth say that they cupboard a bill when they mean that it's been put on the back burner (which I guess you're not likely to find in a cupboard. Oh dear).

  9. Sili said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    Isn't this matter moot?

  10. Phil H said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    I'm a Brit, and for me, table feels like it's almost obligatorily correlated with "motion", as in "to table a motion", as a piece of very formal organization-speak. Use of "table" to mean "propose (for discussion)" without the word motion seems slightly marked, still just about a conscious extension of the word outside its conventional usage.

  11. Mark F. said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 1:41 pm

    Phil H – The American use of "table" is also pretty strongly restricted to "formal organization-speak". Damien Hall's example sentences sound much more natural to me with "motion" or "proposal" used in place of "briefing paper". But if you're in a deliberative body that deals with briefing papers, I'm sure they do get tabled, in whatever sense of the word is appropriate.

    Incidentally, and I'm a bit embarrassed to point this out, the third Star Wars prequel also made use of the same ambiguity mentioned in the main post, when the Emperor/senator guy told the traders that Anikin/Vader would "take care of" them.

  12. marie-lucie said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    A few years agot I was very confused when one of the deans at the university where I worked was criticized for "failure of oversight" – I had always thought that "oversight" was something you did involuntarily, a failure to see something, for which you might have to apologize, so how could anyone "fail to fail" to see something? But as it was explained to me, it was a not a "failure to see" but a "failure to oversee" the people under her.

  13. Mark F. said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    Had I been paying attention to the previous post about Mark Hauser, I would have noticed a counterexample to my claim that "table" is restricted to parliamentary contexts:

    The quoted article in the Chronicle of Higher Education notes that "The research that was the catalyst for the inquiry ended up being tabled, but only after additional problems were found with the data."

  14. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

    @marie-lucie, perhaps the ambiguity in the noun oversight is because it corresponds both to the verb oversee (which pretty much never means "fail to notice") and the verb overlook (which by contrast often means exactly that).

  15. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 3:44 pm

    I have heard it said that French tuer, 'kill', derives from Latin tueri, 'protect, look after', by way of an idiom of this kind.

  16. marie-lucie said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 5:54 pm

    JWB, yes, that's what I eventually figured out, but I had not encountered "oversight" in the same context as "overseeing" before, only in the context of "overlooking".

  17. groki said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 6:18 pm

    David L: But then how does table (US) work?

    "the floor" is where speakers make proposals and thrash out ideas; "tabling" something means putting it up out of the way so actual work can get done.

    or think kindergarten, and kids with blocks.

  18. groki said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    an "overlook" is how a roadside view spot can be designated on highway signs.

    during family vacation drives, the smart-alecks among us would mock complain, "don't stop here: they're telling us to overlook it!"

    provoking, of course (and as intended), real complaints in return.

  19. John Cowan said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 6:53 pm

    In the U.S. House of Representatives, when a motion is laid on the table it is effectively dead, for there is no motion to retrieve it. In more general U.S. parliamentary procedure, however, under Robert's Rules of Order there is a motion "to take from the table" which can be applied during the current session (or the next session in certain cases).

    Motions "to table" therefore contain their own ambiguity, for it's often not clear what the mover means by them. Therefore, the competing Standard Code uses the terms "postpone temporarily" and "postpone indefinitely" to resolved the ambiguity.

  20. stephen said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    People say "that's okay" when it's really not okay.
    People say "that's all right" when it's really not all right. Why?
    Why don't dictionaries include those opposing definitions?
    Don't other people get confused about that?
    How should I find out what they really mean without nagging them about it?
    If I get confused whose fault is it?
    How long has that been going on?
    I caught June Lockhart saying "No, that's okay" in an episode of Lost in Space.

    Okay, I'll stop whining now.

  21. Nicholas Ostler said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 7:18 pm

    A little routine pedantry: French tuer is usually (e.g. Larousse étymologique) referred to Latin tutare 'to make safe", so the point stands although the precise origin is different. (It would be a denominative verb from tutus 'safe', itself originally a shortened past participle of tueri.) Roman army slang for 'kill' (in the time of Augustine of Hippo, 4th century AD) was allevare, i.e. literally 'relieve', so semantically like 'take care of'.

  22. JimG said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 7:44 pm

    Wasn't there a burlesque routine with the premise of a person walking into a Chinese restaurant with a small pet dog and asking someone to take care of the dog while the person had dinner?

  23. JimG said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 8:02 pm

    Oversight has contradictory alternative meanings, but oversee (and supervise) is clear. Overlook can allow something to escape notice or provide a view of it, but to look something over implies paying close attention, except when looking over a four-leaf clover or the countryside. Glasses may or may not be useful for having a clear vision, er, view.

  24. stephen said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 9:11 pm

    A person can be charged with a duty–something he or she is supposed to do; the charge is given before he/she does it. Then after he or she has done it, the duty has been discharged.

    Or a person can be arrested–accused of doing something he or she wasn't supposed to do. He or she is charged with doing something, after the deed is done.

    But after the deed is done we don't say the suspect has discharged anything.

  25. Jason L. said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

    In my high school in California, people who went to go smoke (often marijuana) were said to be smoking out. Smoking someone out also means "providing someone with marijuana". This lead to bemusement and then amusement when I heard of the smoking-cessation event, The Great American Smokeout.

  26. Jason L. said,

    August 28, 2010 @ 11:30 pm

    There are also cases where phrases ought to be antonyms but are actually synonyms, such as "slow up" and "slow down", and "cash in" and "cash out".

    "Overlook" and "look over" are, of course, different words/phrases, but swapping the order of the morphemes gives you antagonistic meanings.

    This autoantonymic phrase is a bit of a stretch, but when you strike out on a trip or a new career path, you start moving. When you strike out in baseball, you do the opposite.

  27. Jason Eisner said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 12:45 am

    @marie-lucie et al.: From the classic children's novel The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster, 1961): "I'm Alec Bings; I see through things. … My father sees to things, my mother looks after things, my brother sees beyond things, my uncle sees the other side of every question, and my little sister Alice sees under things. … Whatever she can't see under, she overlooks."

  28. Stephen Nicholson said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 1:12 am

    Well Stephen, I suspect the reason that dictionaries don't include both definitions for phrases like "that's okay" is because 1) dictionaries don't often include phrases, and 2) when someone says "that's okay" when "that" isn't okay is because the speaker is trying to tell the listener it is okay. I.e, the speaker is either lying or being polite. To know that things weren't ok would require listing to the tone of the voice and picking-up non-verbal cues.

  29. Qov said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 2:05 am

    Jason L. – In my Canadian high school those people were smoking up.

  30. John Walden said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 3:11 am

    'Have you dusted the room?' depends on whether you are talking to a crime scene investigator or a housekeeper.

    At the back of my mind is a phrase something like 'There is no question of this person's guilt' or 'This person's guilt is not in question' where all depends on whether the prosecutor or defender is speaking. But I can't quite make it work.

  31. Nicholas Ostler said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 4:50 am

    All the above is arguable.

  32. ENKI-][ said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    @Jason L.: I don't suppose your original slang usage took into account the meaning of 'smoke out' involving the killing of small burrowing animals by pumping poison gas into their holes? I get the impression it is used in an analogous way to refer to DEA sting operations now.

  33. stephen said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    Thanks, Stephen.

    "Not an option" can mean either "not one of your choices", or it can mean, "it's not optional–it's required."

  34. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

    @marie-lucie

    I've always found the use of 'oversight' to mean 'supervision' to be slightly odd (even thought the latinate version corresponds neatly). When we refer to 'an oversight' we usually mean a failure of supervision.

    'Overseeing' works better to my ear — in some contexts.

  35. Gordon Campbell said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 9:51 pm

    Sometimes ironic phrases become so standard that it’s easy to forget that their literal meaning is opposite. I remember discussing a reading with a group of foreign students that included the sentence “It’s too bad if Jane doesn’t like it.” They all felt that this was an expression of sympathy and of concern for Jane’s opinion. It took me quite a while to figure out how they'd arrived at this very reasonable (but wrong) interpretation.

  36. Joshua said,

    August 29, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

    In the movie "Beavis and Butt-head Do America," the two main characters are mistaken for hit men, and a man hires them to "do" (kill) his wife. Beavis and Butt-head eagerly take on the assignment because they believe that they are being asked to "do" (have sex with) the wife. ("She'll do you faster than you can do her," the man warns Beavis and Butt-head, although the boys interpret this as a promise rather than a warning.)

    Despite the significance of this semantic ambiguity to the film's plot, I can't really recall seeing or hearing any use of "to do someone" meaning "to kill someone" outside the context of this film, either before or after seeing it.

  37. jaap said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 8:06 am

    Apart from the previously mentioned Father Ted, Pulp Fiction, and Star Wars III, the ambiguity of "take care of" was also used in The 51st State, where a character gets killed due to someone misunderstanding the order.

  38. Mary said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 11:46 am

    There is also the 1991 film "Let Him Have It" (dir. Peter Medak), about an English trial in the 1950s that turns on the ambiguity of the instruction to "let him have it."

  39. Aaron Davies said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    after dusting the cake, i had to dust the counter.

  40. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Geoffrey Willans, in the character of Nigel Molesworth, uses 'do' to mean 'kill'. So it must have been current at one time.

  41. Anonymous said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 2:49 pm

    i found in a short story once the lovely sentence "we have never sanctioned the presence of foxes on our estate (though we have sometimes sanctioned the foxes)."

  42. Robert said,

    August 30, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

    The Father Ted episode referred to above calls one meaning of "take care" the Al Pacino sense and the other one the Julie Andrews sense.

  43. Nick Lamb said,

    August 31, 2010 @ 10:22 am

    (of the verb table) Both senses are present in British English despite the conflict (just as with "take care of") and I'm surprised that I'm the first to mention this. My (British) dictionary lists them as two subsidiary uses of the verb, after "to place on a table" without any annotation as to geographical restriction for either. And it so happens that on Friday afternoon (with a long bank holiday weekend ahead of us) I suggested that we "table this discussion and look at it on Tuesday" with no indications of confusion from others (variously native English and EFL users from non-American countries) in the conversation.

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