Posted by Harry Hertz, the Baldrige Cheermudgeon
Until last week, I did not know what a contranym was. I also thought that cleave was to separate or split apart, as with a meat cleaver. Imagine my surprise when I read cleave in a sentence where the syntax clearly indicated the opposite, where cleave appeared to mean to stick or cling to. So, I polled a few colleagues and some of them gave the first definition and some the second, but none gave both. Both definitions are correct. The first is a transitive verb and the second intransitive. Furthermore, I learned from Wikipedia that there are other homographs (words with the same spelling) that are also antonyms. As a group these words are known as auto-antonyms or contranyms.
OK, so this is amusing you say, but why is he talking about contranyms on Blogrige, the official blog of the Baldrige Program? Because this example, in a small way, shows the challenges associated with writing the Criteria for Performance Excellence. Every other year as we revise the Criteria, every word and sentence has to be scrutinized to try to avoid misinterpretations of the purpose or meaning of each question in the Criteria. Furthermore, each question is examined from the perspective of whether it can be answered with practical factual information. You would be amazed at how many questions are discarded because they are theoretically great, but not of practical value or not answerable with real business practices. We then ask, can the question be answered equally well by manufacturers, service providers, small business, nonprofit organizations, education, and health care. Will pondering the question help the organization improve or innovate? Could the question have different meanings in different sectors? Does the question reflect the needs of current, forefront management practices?
Writing Baldrige Criteria is challenging; but it is also fun! If you have not been engaged in discussions of Criteria revisions, now that you know some of the questions to ask, do you have any ideas to suggest? You can respond directly on this blog or you can send input through our feedback link. Thanks!