Wednesday Word: Promise

Promises, promises. She is full of promise. I promise… Pinky promise (remember those?!)

We all love promises, but only get excited about them when we know the one who made the promise is trustworthy. We believe they will keep their promise.

But how about threats? How do you respond to threats? Today we hear too much about threats, don’t you think? Threat levels and threat alerts. We don’t feel safe. Threats are not something we want to hear.

Today’s Wednesday illustrates how languages divvy up their semantic real estate differently. And we see how the meaning may be contained in a word in one language… or a phrase in another.

In Palawano, promise and threat are the SAME WORD.

Well, kinda. The word is sanggop. Generally, it means to promise. That’s the default, assumed meaning. But if someone “promises” (sanggop) to punch you in the nose, the meaning becomes threat. But unless a negative outcome is explicitly stated, sanggop simply means “promise.”

So sanggop really means that the speaker will “certainly do” something. So the certainly aspect is innate. But part of the sense of threat (the you-won’t-like-this part) is entailed not in the word sanggop itself, but in the undesirability of what was promised (or rather, threatened). So sanggop something nice, that’s a promise. But sanggop something unpleasant, and it’s a threat.

Weird, huh?

Well  actually, this shouldn’t be all that surprising. In our initial, automatic response, we tend to think that promise means only good things in English, and threat refers bad things. As stand-alone words, that is true.

But we actually use the word promise for threatening bad outcomes, as well. This is especially true when the speaker actually utters the word “promise,” (in what is called a speech act):

“If you come here again, you varmint, I promise to tan your hide!”

I’m sure that quote is from some Western movie or Louis L’Amour book.

I promise.


About Bill Davis

Writer, speaker and translation and language learning consultant. I write technical articles, poetry and humor, and I am working on my first novel which is set on the island of Palawan in the Philippines.
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2 Responses to Wednesday Word: Promise

  1. kevinsuncommon says:

    interesting play on words and interesting how they were made so similar!
    Blessings …Kevin

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