I was sitting in a seminar and the guy was talking about unraveling in the labor market.  Someone asked a question whether it could happen in reverse. The speaker said “Do you mean raveling up?  Yes it is possible that there is raveling up.”

And I thought “Wait a minute, you don’t need the ‘up’ in ‘raveling up’ because surely the opposite of unraveling is just ‘raveling.’ ”  But then I realized that I have never heard that word used.  Unraveling, all the time.  Raveling, never.  So I went for the dictionary.  Three dictionaries in a row gave me a definition of raveling something like this.

Ravel. verb.  To disentangle.  Unravel.

What?  To ravel means to unravel??  But then what does unravel mean?

Unravel. verb.  To untangle.

So two very strange things now.  First, unravel has an independent definition (in terms of other words) but ravel, the un-prefixed word, is defined in terms of the prefixed unravel.  Second, ravel is defined to mean unravel!

My colleague Rakesh Vohra thought the good old Oxford English Dictionary would save us from being swallowed up into the lexicographic Weezer-vortex, but alas (login with username trynewoed, password trynewoed.  works until Feb 5), not even the Queen can help:

1. To entangle or disentangle

(!) The word means A and also the opposite of A. Doesn’t it now follow that disentangle means the same as entangle? And isn’t there a theorem that once you allow a contradiction into a formal system you can make anything into a contradiction. So if we flip through enough pages of the OED eventually we can prove that True means False?

2. To become unwound, to fray; to unravel.

3. To disentangle, make plain or clear.

Yeah right.

(drawing:  Road of Life from www.f1me.net)

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