Confess!

I was reading The Devils of Loudon this afternoon, when the word confessor made me stop for a moment.

Hang on, I thought, logically you might assume a confessor is someone who makes a confession, who confesses to something. A teacher teaches, a writer writes, so logically a confessor confesses, no?

No, because of course a confessor is someone like a priest who hears someone’s confession.

But also yes, because confessor also means someone who confesses. How can it mean both things?

Well, it’s all probably down to the fact that confessor originally referred to someone who avows their religion in the face of danger (but doesn’t suffer martyrdom). There’s the same basic sense of admitting something inherent in this use of the term as there is in the sense of admitting to a crime or sin (when you think about it, confessing to believing in a particular religion before its enemies could be just as dangerous to your life/reputation as confessing to a crime or sin).

The reason confessor is still mainly associated with this meaning, rather than that of someone who confesses to something bad, is probably that it was popularised as the nickname of Edward the Confessor. The ancient King of England got the name from being a saint who wasn’t martyred, and his renown probably solidified that as the meaning of the word.

So it’s not really that strange that one word can mean two opposing things. Tune in tomorrow to discover even more such words…

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