Contronyms – Words That Are Their Own Opposites

Read this ambiguous sentence: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.”

  • Does that mean, ‘Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression’ or
  • Does it mean, ‘Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default’?

1. Sanction can mean ‘give official permission or approval for (an action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.”

“Oversee,” means ‘supervise’ “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’

3. Dust, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. “Resign,” meaning ‘to quit,’ is spelled the same as “resign,” meaning ‘to sign up again,’ but it’s pronounced differently.

8. Fast can mean “moving rapidly,” as in “running fast,” or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in “holding fast.” If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first. The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly, vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a meaning that spread to the adjective.

9. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in “to turn off,” but also ‘activated,’ as in “The alarm went off.”

10. Weather can mean ‘to withstand or come safely through,’ as in “The company weathered the recession,” or it can mean ‘to be worn away’: “The rock was weathered.”

11. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or ‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).

12. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t help doing something, when it means ‘prevent.’

13. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

14. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean “They argued,” “They served together in the war,” or “He used the old battle-ax as a weapon.” (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

15. Go means “to proceed,” but also “give out or fail,” i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

16. Hold up can mean “to support” or “to hinder”: “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

17. Out can mean “visible” or “invisible.” For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

18. Out of means “outside” or “inside”: “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

19. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

20. Toss out could be either “to suggest” or “to discard”: “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including “auto-antonym,” “antagonym,” “enantiodrome,” “self-antonym,” “antilogy” and “Janus word” (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions).

 

Suresh Shah, M.D., Pathfinders Enterprise

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