same words, opposite meanings

I’ve written about this before. “The event was sanctioned by the national organization.” “He was sanctioned for his actions.”

When the Obama administration first started talking about no-cost birth control, my emails from Planned Parenthood talked about “no copay” prescriptions. Now that could either mean “it’s not covered, you pay the full cost yourself,” or “there is no out-of-pocket cost to you.” You had to notice the positive tone of the emails to infer that they were referring to the latter.

A Facebook friend checked in at Starbucks and wrote, “Just chilling.” In that context you knew what he meant, as you would if he had written “just chillin'” even without checking in at an espresso shop. But what if he had written “Just chilling” without that context? He could have had the same mellow meaning in mind, or he could have meant, “What the Republicans want to do to women’s reproductive health rights is just chilling.”

Is it any wonder why non-native speakers sometimes have so much trouble with our idioms?

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