Affinity — a curiously multivalent term

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Richard Warmington has pointed out that "affinity" is a contronym (a word with two opposite or contradictory meanings).  Another example of a contronym is "sanction", which can signify both "penalty for disobeying a law" and "permission or approval for an action".

Richard goes on to elaborate that "affinity" can mean:

1a. Relationship by marriage (as distinguished from relationship by blood); […] Opposed to consanguinity

But it can also mean

2b. Relationship by blood, consanguinity; […]

(Both definitions are from the entry for "affinity" in the Oxford English Dictionary.)

Apart from being a contronym, "affinity" is quite polysemous.  One dictionary distinguishes six senses:

1. a natural liking for, or attraction to, a person or thing.

2. inherent likeness or agreement as between things; close resemblance or connection.

3. relationship by marriage or by ties other than those of blood. (distinguished from *consanguinity*).

4. one for whom such a natural liking or attraction is felt.

5. Biol. the phylogenetic relationship between two organisms or groups of organisms resulting in a resemblance in general plan or structure, or in the essential structural parts.

6. Chem. that force by which atoms of dissimilar nature unite in certain definite proportions to form a compound.

(Macquarie Dictionary)

Richard questions whether it's a good idea to define any Chinese term as simply "affinity", yet there are two entries in the ABC Chinese-English Dictionary where the definition is exactly that:

qīnyuán 親緣[亲缘] n. affinity


mìqiè de guānxi 密切的關係[—关系] n. affinity

In both cases, the meaning would be much clearer with an unambiguous definition.

For qīnyuán 親緣[亲缘], we might want to render it as "phylogenetic; consanguineous; related".

In the case of mìqiè de guānxi 密切的關係, one wonders whether an entry is needed at all. The expression seems to be nothing more than you would expect from the meanings of mìqiè 密切 ("close; intimate") and guānxi 關係 ("relation[ship]; connection") — i.e. a close relationship, an intimate connection.


1) Yóuyú shēngzhí yǔ mìniào xìtǒng zài pēitāi fāyù shí, yǒu jí mìqiè de guānxì… 由於生殖與泌尿系統在胚胎發育時,有極密切的關係… ("Because the urinary system is intimately related with the genital organs during the development of the embryo…").

2) Táiwān fèi'ái de zēngjiā yǔ xīyān, jué bīnláng yǒu mìqiè de guānxì 台灣肺癌的增加與吸煙、嚼檳榔有密切的關係 ("The rising incidence of lung cancer in Taiwan is closely connected to cigarette smoking and betelnut chewing").

3) Měiguó zhǔguǎn Dōngyà shìwù de zhòngyào guānyuán, yě zài chūrèn qián yǔ xièrèn hòu, yǔ zhìkù jiān dōu yǒu mìqiè de guānxì 美國主管東亞事務的重要官員,也在出任前與卸任後,與智庫間都有密切的關係 ("Many American policy-makers in charge of East Asian affairs have had close relations with think tanks both before and after leaving office").

There is another Chinese term connected to "affinity" that Richard did not mention in his notes on this term, namely, "yǒuyuán 有缘".  From the moment I encountered this term in my first year of studying Mandarin, I was fascinated by it and intrigued by how to translate it in English.  Dictionaries will usually give something like "(pre)destined; fated; lot or luck by which people are brought together", although ABC has "be fated or bound by karma" (which I like very much).  But I have always felt that "have an affinity" is a suitable translation for "yǒuyuán 有缘" in many circumstances.


  1. Mara K said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 10:43 am

    Here's another, very domain-specific, definition: certain spells in Magic the Gathering have Affinity for Artifacts, meaning that if you have artifact cards in play, that creature costs less mana to cast. This led to the creation of "affinity decks" which use this mechanic heavily. I'm trying to figure out how "Affinity for Artifacts" got translated in the Chinese printing; here's an image of one of the cards, and "Affinity for Artifacts" should be the four characters before the parentheses. Can someone please help me translate?

  2. Mara K said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 10:44 am

    Here is the English version of the card.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 11:57 am

    @Mara K

    Thanks for introducing us to this usage of "affinity" in "Magic the Gathering".

    The Chinese equivalent of (original for) "artifact affinity" is shénqì gòngmíng 神器共鳴.

    Google Translate, Bing Translator, and Baidu Fanyi all have "artifact resonance" for that.

    Usual translations of gòngmíng 共鳴 (lit., "together-sound") are "acoustic resonance; sympathetic response").

    gòng 共 ("altogether; common; general; share; together; together with; all; total")

    míng 鳴 ("cry of bird or animal; make sound")

    In old Chinese texts, shénqì 神器 referred to the emperor's seal and, by extension, to imperial power and government.

    shén 神 ("spirit; god; supernatural being; deity; divinity; numen, numinous")

    qì 器 ("receptacle, vessel; instrument; implement; organ; utensil; ware")

    Usual translations of "artifact" are 工件 (lit., "work-piece / item"), zàopǐn 造品 (lit., "made / manufactured goods / pieces / articles"), réngōng zhìpǐn 人工製品 (lit., "human-work made / manufactured goods / pieces / articles").

  4. Victor Mair said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 12:04 pm

    From June Teufel Dreyer:

    The definition of contronym given above sounds quite similar, though not precisely the same, as that for oxymoron. Would be interested in the comments of the many among you who are more expert on these matters than I.

  5. Mara K said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 12:10 pm


    神器 for "artifact" makes sense, as most artifacts in Magic the Gathering are magical items (so receptacles/vessels for supernatural beings or their powers). And I suppose "resonance" is closer to the "really liking a thing" definition of affinity (#1 in your list of 6, which I'm pretty sure is the one the MtG use is based on) than either of the ABC translations.

  6. Mara K said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 12:14 pm

    A thought for Dr(?) Dreyer: as I understand it, a contronym is a word with two contradictory meanings/usages, while an oxymoron consists of two words that contradict each other. So "jumbo shrimp" is an oxymoron because it combines "jumbo" (=big) and "shrimp" (=small), while "clip" is a contronym because you can clip with scissors or with a paper clip.

  7. S Frankel said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 12:29 pm

    @Mara K: Pet peeve, with my apologies.

    An oxymoron is a rhetorical device – I think this is from Aristotle – so it has to be intentional. A classic example (not from Aristotle, obviously) is "O felix culpa:" (O happy fault), referring to the fall of Adam so that Jesus might redeem the world.

    "Jumbo shrimp" is cute, but just a contradiction, since it wasn't intended to make any kind of point; indeed, it wasn't intentional at all.

  8. Mara K said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    @S Frankel: But we agree that neither "felix culpa" nor "jumbo shrimp" are contronyms, right?

    While we're on the subject: is "make haste slowly" an oxymoron?

  9. cameron said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 2:03 pm

    Sense 2 in the dictionary definition in the OP is also the basis of the technical uses of affinity (and the adjective affine) in mathematics.

  10. S Frankel said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

    @Mara K – If a contronym has to be a word, then "jumbo shrimp" and "felix culpa" aren't contronyms.

    In spite of my pretensions otherwise, I'm not actually the Lord High Poobah of Classicial Terminology, but if I were I would declare "Make haste slowly" to be a perfect oxymoron, because it's an intentional contradiction for a rhetorical effect.

    I wonder if "deliberate" is a contronym. Usually it means "slow" but there's the famous phrase "with all deliberate speed" from the US Supreme Court's Brown v Board of Ed decision ordering the desegregation of public schools. A quick google search shows that there's no general agreement on what it meant, but the NAACP preferred "forthwith."

  11. BZ said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 3:11 pm

    I am only familiar with definitions 1 and 6, so neither of these opposite definitions. How common are they? I think not all that common. When I search Google for "they have an affinity", which should favor one of the mutual affinity senses, I still get results where the phrase is followed by "for" (less often "to" or "with" or "toward") or preceded by "for which" or similar, at least on the first three pages.

    After filtering all that out, I finally get an example of definition 2 in a book about violence in schools: "Yet a look at a few statistics tells us that despite our wishes, violence and youth do mix; they have an affinity that is impossible to deny".

    Meanwhile, "you are my affinity" (definition 4) only returns 40 results, 16 of which are books (mostly between 1901 and 1909), 13 are quotes from books, poems, and the like, 6 are in a foreign language

  12. Ethan said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 4:35 pm

    @BZ: I think if you search for "there is some affinity" you will find many examples of usage 2.

  13. Guy said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 4:41 pm

    "Jumbo shrimp" wouldn't be a contranym even if we regarded it as a compound word, it has a single sense. Calling something a "contranym" is discussing relationships between two senses of the expression, calling it an "oxymoron" is discussing the relationship between the ordinary meanings of the constituent parts, it has nothing to do with the senses available to the whole expression.

  14. Xtifr said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 5:49 pm

    Simply put: a contranym has opposing meanings in different contexts, while an oxymoron contradicts itself in a single context. Thus, "cleave" can mean separate or combine, but there's no contradiction if I say "his head was cleaved from his body." That's clearly the former meaning. On the other hand, the title of the movie about magician James Randi, An Honest Liar, is a deliberate oxymoron—it contradicts itself—but none of the words are contranyms.

    True oxymorons (as opposed to apparent oxymorons like "jumbo shrimp", which doesn't actually contradict itself, since "shrimp" in that context means "marine crustacean" rather than "small") tend to be either simple mistakes, or deliberate humor, like the movie title above.

  15. John R said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 6:04 pm

    "Cleave" is my fave: to stick to or to split apart.

  16. Richard W said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 6:30 pm

    Regarding spelling, Merriam-Webster and the OED accept both "contronym" and "contranym".

  17. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 6:52 pm

    The OED cite is from a more recent edition than I have easy access to but I am a bit skeptical that the 2b sense as actually used is really synonymous with "consanguinity" in the technical sense of the latter — it's more a question of broader and narrower senses, with the broad sense meaning something like "family relationships, including blood relationships" and the narrower and more technical (used variously by lawyers and anthropologists and probably others) sense meaning "relationships by marriage as specifically contrasted with blood relationships." So e.g. there's a narrow sense of "dog" meaning "male canine as specifically contrasted with female canine," and a broader sense of dog that comprehends both sexes. Yet the fact that a bitch is both a dog in the broad sense and not-a-dog in the narrower one doesn't mean that "dog" is a contronym. See sense 1.2 here as an attempt to integrate the broader and narrower relevant senses of "affinity":

  18. Richard W said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 9:15 pm

    @ J.W. Brewer
    Yes, I think you may be right. At any rate, for what they're worth, here are the two most modern examples in OED for its sense 2b.

    1982 If skin colour is emphasized, the tribal Japanese Ainu are placed in the same group as the European, while blood groups suggest an affinity between Indians and Hungarian gipsies.

    2004 Recent blood group investigation suggest [sic] a closer affinity with the Celts in Ireland and Scotland than with the Scandinavians.

    (The "[sic]" is OED's, not mine.)

  19. JPL said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 10:09 pm

    I have the impression that there are a good number of contronyms (how did the -a- change to -o-?) in English; I'm gong to keep an eye out for them and write them down. An example that I can think of offhand is the word 'oversight': 1) "keep a vigilant watch over", as in "There must be constant congressional oversight of these activities"; and 2) "failure to notice something significant", as in "The legal mixup was a result of a congressional oversight". (I haven't looked it up in the OED yet.) The word 'overlook' has a similar, although less direct, duality: 1)"The house on the hill overlooks a golf course." (i.e., "sees") vs. 2) "The boss overlooked the employee's mistake" or "The police overlooked a key piece of evidence" (i.e., "didn't see"). Oddly, you would think the sentence "The invigilator stood on a platform overlooking the entire hall" would be ambiguous, but the sense where it is the platform that is overlooking seems to be dominant, as opposed to "The invigilator stood on a platform observing the entire hall", where it's clearly "the invigilator" that is the subject of the participial. On the other hand, 'oversee', as in "The supervisor oversaw all the work" lacks the contronymic duality, probably because it presupposes successful engagement with the intentional object (perception), whereas 'look' does not. But then why the difference between the verbal and the nominal forms ('-see' vs. '-sight')?

  20. David Morris said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 10:36 pm

    I don't have a personal corpus to consult, so I can't be totally sure, but I am fairly sure that I have never encountered 'affinity' to mean 'consanguinity'. I glanced through the citations on the BNC, but couldn't immediately find and example. If anyone has access to the OED citations or any other big corpus, could you please post an example, please?

    The Book of Common Prayer 1662 has a 'table of kindred and affinity', being a list of people whom one is not allowed to marry, either by way of being too closely related (kindred, consanguinity, eg your daughter) or being married to someone too closely related (affinity, eg your son's wife).

  21. Ray said,

    June 28, 2016 @ 11:30 pm

    we always called these "janus words". words like: inflammable, fast, to trim, to dust, to seed…

  22. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 10:04 am

    I agree with David Morris in being doubtful that 'affinity' was actually used to mean ' consanguinity'. Perhaps it was sometimes used to mean 'relationship' in a context where that would include consanguinity; it's easy to misread 'kindred and affinity' as a pleonastic phrase like 'null and void', rather than as referring to two alternatives. But if it meant 'consanguinity', that would imply someone might say something like 'we don't have an affinity; he's my wife's brother', and I'm not convinced of that.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 10:10 am

    The uses of "affinity" for "blood relationship" in the examples Richard W gives are for quite distant genetic relationships for which it would be quite odd to talk about "consanguinity." E.g. the claim is often plausibly made that the overwhelming majority (somewhere between 80% and 100% depending on the mathematical model being used) of currently living people with some meaningful amount of West European ancestry are descendants of Charlemagne, and the degree of distance decreases by ethnicity (e.g. I'm not sure if anyone has tried to model this but if someone estimated that any two living Americans descended in significant part from the 17th century settlers of New England are >50% likely to be, let's say, no more distantly related than seventh cousins, I wouldn't find that a surprising claim). That's probably a much closer degree of "affinity" than that between Hungarian Roma and current residents of South Asia. The sharp contrast between consanguinity and affinity, whether used by canon lawyers or by social anthropologists, was typically made in societies where pretty much everyone (and certainly everyone like to be sufficiently close by geography and social class as to be likely to marry each other) was an Nth cousin of everyone else for some single-digit value of N. That your sister-in-law in a moderately ethnically homogeneous society was probably also your fifth cousin once removed by three different pathways didn't make her a "blood" relation in the meaningful-in-context sense.

  24. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 10:10 am

    And I see that J.W Brewer has already said this.

    Of course, in ordinary speech 'using X to mean Y' can often mean 'using X to refer to something that is in fact Y' (as in the widespread, though annoying-to-linguists, phrase 'using literally to mean figuratively'). But that doesn't imply that dictionaries should record Y as a 'meaning' of X in such cases.

  25. Richard W said,

    June 29, 2016 @ 7:07 pm

    J. W. Brewer wrote that the uses of "affinity" for "blood relationship" in the examples I quoted from OED are for quite distant genetic relationships.

    Well, I'm afraid I gave the wrong impression of what OED is saying. I should have quoted more fully than I did. First of all, the full wording of definition 2b is Relationship by blood, consanguinity; common ancestry of individuals, races, etc.; an instance of this. Secondly, there are examples of usage of "affinity" from several hundred years ago which seem to be given in support of the "blood relationship" gloss. For example,

    1712 S. Centlivre Perplex'd Lovers iv. 36 Cousins may couple for all their Affinity.
    1766 O. Goldsmith Vicar of Wakefield I. i. 3 Our cousins too, even to the fortieth remove, all remembered their affinity, without any help from the Heralds' office.

    Also, sense 2a in OED is
    A family or group related to a person by blood; a kindred; (individually) a blood relative. Also in extended use. Obs. (rare after 17th cent.).

    Two of the examples of usage are:
    a1513 R. Fabyan New Cronycles Eng. & Fraunce (1516) I. lxx. f. xxvv, He therfore with helpe of his affynyte and frendes withstode the Romaynes.
    1654 tr. M. Martini Bellum Tartaricum 141 All the Generals, Commanders and Souldiers, were either of his affinity, or wholy at his Command and Obedience.

    But it does seem that even if "affinity" used to mean "blood relationship", it doesn't anymore.

  26. Richard W said,

    June 30, 2016 @ 8:01 am

    If "affinity" can't be used to mean "relationship by blood", I think that defining 親緣 (qīnyuán) as "affinity" as ABC does is not just confusing, but incorrect. A 親緣鑑定 is a "qīnyuán test", i.e. a test to determine whether two individuals are blood-related. (The term 親緣鑑定 is mentioned in the Chinese Wikipedia article on paternity/maternity testing:

  27. Michael Rank said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 5:40 pm

    “Let” is also a contronym. Normally it means “permit” but it also has the archaic meaning “prevent”. British passports until fairly recently (late 1980s, I think) included the imposing phrase, “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance…”

  28. Richard W said,

    July 4, 2016 @ 5:59 pm

    @ Michael Rank
    "let" is mentioned in a note in OED's entry for "contronym":
    Contronyms can take the form of polysemous words, e.g. sanction n. (which can mean both ‘a penalty for disobeying a law’ and ‘official permission or approval for an action’), or homographs, e.g. let v.1 (in the sense ‘to allow’) and let v.2 (in the sense ‘to hinder, obstruct’).

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