A contranym is a word that means two opposite things: “Dust,” for example, as in dusting a room means removing dust, but dust, as in sugar-dusting a donut or dusting for fingerprints means applying dust. “Fast” likewise means immovable as in “hold fast,” or moving quickly as in “fast car.” Contranyms are fun (my favorites are “incredible” and “unbelievable”) For a list of contranym check here.

There’s another class of words for which there is no name so I’ve taken the liberty of naming them “Hermaphroditic”. They come in pairs and, like contranyms mean two opposite things depending on what they modify.

Take the words “give and take.” Together the phrase means balancing assertiveness and accommodation. But which word means assertive and which means accommodating? We “Give a hard time” (assertive) but also “give in” (accommodating). We “take what we want” (assertive) but also “take it lying down (accommodating).”

Then there’s serenity and courage:

The serenity to accept my standards and hold you to them.

The serenity to accept you and change my standards.

The courage to change my standards to accommodate you.

The courage to change you because I accept my standards and hold them.

And means and ends

Internal means: My ability to succeed.

External means: My society giving me a way to succeed.

Internal ends: My aim to succeed.

External ends: My society aims providing me an opportunity to succeed.

And then there’s supply and demand:

Supply of houses; supply of buyers.

Demand for houses: demand for buyers.

Many of these pairs play on the “give and take” relationship between assertiveness and receptivity, yang and yin (The traditional Taoist terms for male and female qualities respectively). These words are therefore like pairs of hermaphrodites, words that change sex mid-air. They remind me of the old bawdy limerick:

A gay man who lived in Khartoum

Took a lesbian up to his room.

They argued all night

Over who had the right

To do what, and with which, and to whom.

And speaking of gender, we get a similar confusion sometimes over the male and female parts of connections. For example, a microphone cable has two distinct ends, one of which has male prongs in a female socket (on the left in the picture) and the other has female sockets in a male prong (on the right). If they shout to you across the stage “Hey, thread the male end of that mic chord over here!” it’s hard to know which end to send. We’re slowed down by a question about appropriate context, or scale of analysis. The microphone cable illustrates the issue: Male or female on the big or small scale? What’s male on the big scale, the outer dimensions, is female on the smaller scale, the inner dimensions.

We face a similar question, male (yang, assertive) vs. female (yin, receptive) on many moral issues. We assert with our children even though they say, “You’re not nice, you should be more receptive to our way of doing things!” We assert with them, given our receptivity to society’s standards. If you’ve read my columns before (e.g. How moral principles make us dumb) you know how vacuous I find such moral principles as “be receptive,” or “be assertive.” To be receptive on one scale usually means being assertive on another. This is a problem leaders deal with all the time: Giving in to one party usually means imposing on another party.

And speaking of leaders, how did they come to be leaders? Did they assert themselves skillfully or did their circumstances just happen to have receptivity to them? I mean did they supply excellence, or did their circumstances just demand someone, and the leader lucked out?

Take a particular leader: Is your boss a jerk? Does he think he’s a genius? Some jerks think they’re geniuses because they can get away with it. Their position of power is so safe they can do no wrong, or rather they can get away with doing lots of wrong. They take personal credit for what is really a feature of their circumstantial opportunity. They think they’re right because they’re never challenged, but they’re never are challenged because no one would dare!

Conversely, do you have employees who don’t give you credit for the hard work you do? Do they mistakenly think that what you do is easy, that they could do it too and that you’re just lucky to have fallen into your leadership role?

There are two ways to give yourself the impression that you’re good at basketball. One is to practice until you’ve got the necessary skills. The other is to buy one of those three-foot tall basketball hoops that Playskool makes. If you can forget that it’s a toy, you’ll feel like a master, for shooting shot after shot.

In other words, is one’s success a product of one’s supply of skill or society’s supply of openings? Is it one’s high demand for excellence from oneself, or society’s low demand for excellence? These are questions Malcolm Gladwell addresses in his best-selling book “Outliers.”

I think it’s beneficial to have our attention shifted to issues of context and scale of analysis (see Zoom and Chiasmic Questions). These hermaphroditic word pairs are a portal into such topics. And only now do I see that microphone cables are evidence of deep philosophical ambiguity.