Tuesday 7 September 2010

antinomy, antimony

I heard ‘renumeration’ (remuneration) again on the BBC R4 Today programme this morning (blog, 14 July).

I was surprised, though, to find a similar error in a recently published paperback I am reading. It is The Man who Knew Too Much, by David Leavitt, an account of the life and work of the mathematician and cryptographer Alan Turing. (I recommend it, by the way.)

Not once but twice Leavitt refers to a logical paradox which he calls Russell’s antimony.

But even those of us who didn’t do chemistry at school probably know that antimony is the name of a chemical element, the one whose atomic number is 51 and whose symbol is Sb. It is now “increasingly being used in the semiconductor industry as a dopant for ultra-high conductivity n-type silicon wafers, in the production of diodes, infrared detectors, and Hall-effect devices”.

What Russell gave his name to was properly an antinomy, a contradiction, paradox, or conflict.

I’m just a little shocked, not so much that the author of the book got this wrong (anyone can make a mistake), but that no one at Weidenfeld and Nicolson, publishers of the hardback in 2006, noticed it, no readers of the hardback brought it to the publishers’ attention, and no one at Orion/Phoenix, publishers of the 2007 paperback that I am reading, noticed it either.

The stress pattern of antinomy is antepenultimate, ænˈtɪnəmi, like that of other compounds of Greek -nomy: autonomy, economy, astronomy, taxonomy. (It’s also the usual pattern for the book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, though when I was at school our headmaster made us call it ˈdjuːtərəˌnɒmi, to bring out our awareness that this was the Second book of the Law.)

The stress pattern of antimony, on the other hand, is initial: BrE ˈæntɪməni, AmE ˈæntɪmoʊni. So it belongs in this respect with ceremony and testimony.

The Greek word for law, νόμος nómos, has a short vowel between the nasals, whereas the Latin suffix -mōni-, in caerĭmōnia and testĭmōnium, has a long one. Although the etymology of antimony is obscure, the OED traces it back as far as a medieval Latin form antimōnium, evidently assimilated to this pattern. That is ultimately the reason why these two words of such similar appearance, and which are evidently confusable, have different stressings.

An interesting footnote: the OED mentions that the French name of the element, antimoine, has been interpreted by popular etymology as meaning ‘monks’-bane’.


  1. one at Weidenfeld and Nicolson, publishers of the hardback in 2006, noticed it

    I suppose there are no real proofreaders anymore, and as antimony exists as a word, it slipped through the spell-checking software. Those publishing editors who did read it didn't read it for spelling errors, and they might actually have autocorrected it in their brains without noticing.

    Are paperback editions rechecked? Might also depend on whether the paperback editor gets the text as a file, or has to have it scanned and OCRd.

  2. How shocking. Even I knew "Russell's Antinomy". "It's the same as Russell's Paradox".

  3. It is quite possible the author got it right and that a copy editor changed it. I recall writing once about Chicano speakers and having this changed to Chicago without even having this flagged as a query. Luckily I caught that one!

  4. Yes, I didn't think it could have been the author either. Or even a copy editor or even any human being involved who actually got it wrong. Probably an autocorrect by a spellchecker that only had antimony in its dictionary. The shocking thing is that nobody got it right at some later stage.

  5. mallamb beat me to suggesting auto-incorrection, a 'Cupertino' perhaps.

    As a (failed) chemist, I'm embarrassed to say that I stressed antimony on the second syllable until now. At least I my head - I'm not sure I've ever said it in English. (I've heard the anti-monk 'etymology' before, of course. Claimed to be due to its toxicity.)

  6. Three words... Agamemnon's anemone enmity.

  7. Like Sill, I've always thought that "antimony" had antepenultimate stress. In any case, it reminds me of Antimoon, a language learning website with a (now-extinct) forum where I used to be a regular poster. The site's owner never told us what the name meant, but many of us figured it was related to antimony (cf. Dutch "antimoon").

  8. Very strange!

    I have known a lot about antimony ever since I realised it holds the unwanted record of being the metal with the highest enrichment factor (that is, the largest ratio between minimum mineable concentration and average crustal abundance). However, I had never believed that people could make the mistake of reading “antimony” as anotehr word.

  9. How odd (not significant in any way of course - I am a rationalist) that a few minutes after turning aside from your admirable blog and picking up my current novel, The Ionian Mission by Patrick O'Brian, I found an amusing exchange on the medical effects of antimony (pp 49-50) ending in this: 'It is one of the most economical forms of physic known to man, since a single pill of the metal will serve a numerous household, being ingested, rejected and so recovered. I have known one handed down for generations, perhaps from the time of Paracelsus himself. Yet it must be exhibited with discretion: Zwingerius likens it to the sword of Scanderberg, which is either good or bad, strong or weak, as is the party that prescribes or uses it, a worthy medicine if it be rightly applied to a strong man, otherwise it may prove but a froward vomit. Indeed the name is said to signify a monk's bane.'

    I assume Zwingerius is a misprint for Zwingerus, and Scanderberg for Scanderbeg.


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