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Trimming the Tree But Not Cutting its Branches

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When Ana first arrived in the United States from Hungary, she was taken aback when someone greeted her with the idiomatic expression How’s it hanging?. She was also puzzled by the expression trim the tree meaning to “adorn a Christmas tree with decorations.” Trim in this sense reflects the word’s much earlier sense, meaning “to prepare” something. If you trim the sail on a boat, for example, you adjust it to prepare it for new conditions. If you’re in good trim you’re in good physical condition, and an ideal military force will be in fighting trim. The word trim is a contranym, meaning it can have one of two opposite meanings, namely, “to subtract from” or “to add to.” Cleave and dust are two other examples of contranyms. This is part of a complete episode.

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