DEPTHLESS.

Brad Leithauser has a mostly useless New Yorker blog post about allegedly unusable words, half yawn-inducing roundup of the usual suspects (niggardly, awesome, inflammable), half desperate word-count-inflating expansions of random thoughts that floated through his brain (two paragraphs on puissant!). But he starts with an interesting point I’m fairly sure has never occurred to me, so I’ll pass it on here:

I was seeking a replacement for “unfathomable.” I thought of “depthless,” but, feeling a bit iffy about it, I consulted my old Webster’s Second. Yes, it was a synonym for “unfathomable” (“Of measureless depth … unsoundable”) but also for “fathomable” (“Having no depth; shallow”). The word was what I think of as an auto-antonym (a term that doesn’t appear in Webster’s Second): it’s its own opposite. Which is to say, it’s a mostly unusable word.
Suppose in a novel you encounter the phrase “Rick stared into Sheila’s beautiful, depthless eyes.” Rick has clearly met a babe—and she is either superficial or profound.

Note his coy suggestion that auto-antonym—a term that has its own Wikipedia entry and (per that entry) was originally coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960—might be his own personal word (“what I think of as”), and his use of the almost eighty-year-old Webster’s Second, which suggests that he might be one of those idiots who bears a grudge against the great Third (see this LH post and this Sentence first post). But maybe he’s just cheap.

Comments

  1. marie-lucie says:

    I think that depthless would be easily confused with deathless, at least in speech.
    I have never run into fathomable.

  2. How could “depthless” be profound?
    Eye-gazing is way overdone in literature anyhow.

  3. Hah. I refer to the depthless eye of a pigeon, in one of my poems; but I could certainly slso refer to the depthless sea and everyone (well, everyone I care about talking to) would understand it to mean “immeasurably deep.” If you can’t find a use for a word, it’s your fault, not the word’s.

  4. Eye-gazing is way overdone in literature anyhow.
    It’s worse in movies. The eyes of the lady in question start flickering back and forth horizontally, as if a seizure were imminent. I guess this is intended to suggest qu’elle est en train de céder. But what do I know about such matters …
    Face-gazing überhaupt is overdone in the movies. What is the payoff of peering for minutes or hours into someone’s face while they are awake, especially when you already know them and could more profitably be shooting the bull ? I occasionally see teenagers face-gazing in the tram – but then it is well-known that they have trouble organizing their thoughts.
    I can well imagine studying the face of someone sleeping, and have often done so. But if they are awake, I can’t just look at them and say nothing. A thousand topics of conversation crop up. Maybe that’s why some people like to turn off the lights for sex – in order to turn off their urge to talk. I myself like the lights on, but not in order to talk.
    Face-gazing is also a humanist-intellectual fad, it seems. Levinas built some kind of theory on the significance of faces.

  5. Before i rush out & get my “canada goose norge” on, i just had to put in a word for those abysmal dictionary-nerds who own both Webster’s Second & Webster’s Third for the very good reason that each one contains words not found in the other.
    (also, there are light bulbs i can’t reach without standing on both of them…)

  6. Studies show that when you ask strangers to gaze sustainedly into each other’s eyes, and then ask them whether they feel love towards one another, they are more likely to say yes than controls.

  7. “niggardly, awesome, inflammable”: what an inhomogeneous list.
    In Britain at least “inflammable” was abandoned (wisely, in my view) when it was realised that the ill-schooled understood it to mean the opposite of what was intended. I say “abandoned” but “expunged” might be nearer the mark; there was an official campaign to replace it by “flammable”. So much for the belief that you can’t successfully prescribe usage.
    “Awesome” can’t be used, I’d have thought, because it immediately calls to mind some gum-chewing air-head giving her mild approbation, implying that there’s a fair chance that it has come to have essentially no meaning at all.
    But “niggardly” surely runs into problems only because of guilt by association.

  8. If you can’t find a use for a word, it’s your fault, not the word’s.
    Folks, we have a winner!
    i just had to put in a word for those abysmal dictionary-nerds who own both Webster’s Second & Webster’s Third for the very good reason that each one contains words not found in the other.
    Oh, absolutely; I certainly didn’t mean to dis the Second, which is a superb work of lexicography. But if you wanted to look up a word like “auto-antonym,” I presume you’d turn to the Third; the fact that he didn’t suggests he doesn’t own one.

  9. Studies show that when you ask strangers to gaze sustainedly into each other’s eyes, and then ask them whether they feel love towards one another, they are more likely to say yes than controls.
    So much for “love” ! But what were the controls asked to do ? Sit in front of a stranger but not gaze into their eyes, or gaze but not sustainedly ? Then answer the question whether they feel love coming on ?
    Suppose there was a follow-up question: “do you feel irritation coming on at a researcher who asks you such a ridiculous question ? Especially when you consider what conclusions he may intend to draw from your answer ?”. Could the answers to this question invalidate the conclusion drawn from the answers to the first one ?
    What I am doing here is to propose controls for the experiment itself, thereby turning it into an experiment on how such researchers think.

  10. a mostly unusable word
    I recently published an article on auto-antonyms (or what I like to think of as antagonyms) in English poetry, with appeals to Webster 1844 and OED. “Depthless” isn’t there, but “ravel, v.” is, and of course “cleave, v.”. The examples I look at are certainly uses, though the extent to which self-opposition is a feature of the poems is up for argument.
    The paper is linked from here.
    …It’s true. This man has no depth.

  11. Depthless’s relationship to deep is reminiscent of that of priceless to price.

  12. Stu: “Ask them” was perhaps misleading: I assume that some more subtle means of probing was used.
    Dearieme: Quine sums up the case for flammable very neatly: “Semiliteracy, however offensive, is not a capital offense.” Looking into the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I find flammable beating inflammable some 14 to 1, but the latter word is more often used in figurative contexts: only 5 of 503 uses of flammable were figurative, but 8 of 35 uses of inflammable were (6 more were meta-uses talking about the distinction).
    As for awesome, here is Samuel Johnson, as always: “Don’t, Sir, accustom yourself to use big words for little matters. It would not be terrible, though I were to be detained some time here.” Boswell goes on to add: “The practice of using words of disproportionate magnitude, is, no doubt, too frequent everywhere; but, I think, most remarkable among the French, of which, all who have travelled in France, must have been struck with innumerable instances.”

  13. Here’s a blogpost with a long list of contranyms, extensively commented on.
    http://www.dailywritingtips.com/75-contronyms-words-with-contradictory-meanings/

  14. Anyone know what Leithäuser might be? When I look up Leit it seems to have so many meanings that I can’t guess. Brad himself is a member of the Icelandic Order of the Falcon (fifth class). He’s only sixty, but looks much older.

  15. Doris: Either ‘tavernkeeper’ or ‘someone from Leitenhaus in Bavaria’, say the ancestry web sites. The best approach to find these things is simply to google [X name origin].

  16. Crown: Anyone know what Leithäuser might be?
    That’s a spurious trema over the a, the English name is Leithauser (according to Hat). You’re probably being misled by the fact that Leithauser sounds like the comparative form of an adjective (groß, größer).
    To be sure, there’s no German law prohibiting the name Leithäuser. However, somebody from a town called Leithaus would be ein Leithauser or ein Leithausener. Examples: ein Oberhausener (not Oberhäusener), ein Düsseldorfer (not Düsseldörfer).

  17. How spooky ! I just discovered that Doris Archer has gone to meet her maker.

  18. And I guess “bottomless” won’t work because it inevitably reminds one of “topless.”

  19. Shelley: ‘ How could “depthless” be profound? ‘
    The same way “invaluable” and “priceless” can mean of value that is great (albeit unquantifiable).
    Dale Favier: “If you can’t find a use for a word, it’s your fault, not the word’s.”
    I disagree. If you can’t find a use for a word, but you manage to say all you want to say, even though you never use that word, and others understand you, then what fault is there?

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Alexei: And I guess “bottomless” won’t work because it inevitably reminds one of “topless.”
    Bottomless is older than topless, and used mostly in quite different contexts. The example that comes to my mind is bottomless pit, where bottomless means concretely ‘so deep that you can see or even find the bottom’. Even if this phrase is sometimes used metaphorically in an abstract context, such as the bottomless pit of debauchery (a 19th century sermonizing type of phrase), the words bottom is usually concrete, as in the bottom of a barrel. Depthless would not be right in a purely concrete context, since depth is an abstract term referring to measurement: any hollow object has some measurable depth. This word is also very frequent in abstract or literary contexts.
    As for topless, a relatively new word, it refers to a very specific type of top and is never used in such contexts!

  21. Sir JCass says:

    As for topless, a relatively new word, it refers to a very specific type of top and is never used in such contexts!
    There’s one pretty famous use of “topless” from the 16th century, Marlowe’s
    Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships,
    And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

    Marlowe exploits the ambiguity in the word. Here “topless” could mean “so high and imposing the tops cannot be seen”, or topless because there are no longer any roofs to the burn-out ruins of Troy.

  22. marie-lucie says:

    Thank you, Sir J, I stand corrected. I only knew the first half of the quote. I don’t think the meaning of topless here is what Alexei had in mind though.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    The current spam comment in the Lermontov thread is one of those wrongly formatted ones that screws up the display of the thread.

  24. I wasn’t asking about the English name Leithauser. I couldn’t care less about it. I was interested in the German, and the pl. of das Haus is die Häuser. Anyway John gave me a jolly good answer.

  25. J. W. Brewer says:

    He’s off on the wrong track because the relevant sense of “unfathomable” more “incomprehensible” and than “really really deep” (which even metaphorically could mean “profound” rather than “baffling”). “More fathoms deep than the maximum length of weighted line I happen to have on board this ship to measure depth with” might have been the original core notion, but these days I think the verb “fathom” gets used in lots of “X can’t fathom Y” contexts that are quite distant from the nautical-depth-measurement sense. So going back to that narrow pre-metaphor starting point before consulting the thesaurus seems like a foolish way to proceed.

  26. The OED2 shows topless ‘having no top’ from 1596, ‘seeming to have no top, immeasurably high, unbounded’ from 1589, and the modern sense ‘showing the breasts’ in three subdefinitions: of clothes from 1937, of women from 1966, and of places from 1970.

  27. Joe Rembetikoff says:

    Speaking of “deep,” you may already know this or not care, but the word “дебри” isn’t some strange Russian misinterpretation of “debris,” as I initially assumed when I learned it, but rather the plural of the Slavic дебрь, cognate with “deep” and German “tief.”

  28. I went through the same learning process when I first encountered the word!

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