Contronyms – a word that is its own opposite

Have you ever seen a word in English and thought ‘I know what that means!’ only to realise that it was being used to mean the exact opposite? If so, you have encountered something known as a contronym. What is a contronym? According to Oxford, a contronym is:

A word with two opposite meanings, e.g. sanction (which can mean both ‘a penalty for disobeying a law’ and ‘official permission or approval for an action’).

English has quite a few contronyms, but how have they come to be? Well, the truth is that it depends on the individual words themselves, but there are a few different types.

The first type we can identify are words with ambiguous meanings, like ‘trim’. The verb ‘trim’ originally meant ‘to make firm/to arrange’ in Old English. As time went by, it came to mean ‘prepare’. The problem is that it depends on what and how you are preparing something as to what it actually means. ‘To trim a tree’, for example, can mean to add something to it, such as trimming a tree with tinsel at Christmas, or to remove parts such as twigs, leaves and branches. In this case, it all depends on context. A clue could be what tool the person is using to trim the tree with. It is very hard to add tinsel to a tree using a chain saw!

Trim isn’t the only example. The verb ‘sanction’ from the Latin sancire/sanctio originally meant ‘to ratify’. The problem is, what were they ratifying? Were they imposing a threatening penalty for disobeying the law or were they giving official permission or approval for something? Sanction has retained the double, contradictory meaning since it first came into widespread, general use in the late 1800s (it had been used legally for a long time before then).

The second type comes from homographs, or words that sound the same spelling but sometimes are not pronounced the same and often have different origins (this is partially related to the Great Vowel Shift). The word ‘cleave’ is a great example of this type (which also happens to be a homophone – pronounced the same way in both cases). Cleave ‘to adhere’ comes from the Old English verb cleofian while cleave ‘to split’ comes from the word clēofan. Over time, these words have morphed into homographs and homophones.

Another great example of this type is ‘resign’, but only as a homograph. When we pronounce resign as in ‘to quit’, it is different from the action ‘to affirm again’ (/rɪˈzaɪn/ versus /riː saɪn/).

It is not only verbs that can be contronyms; adjectives, adverbs and prepositions sometimes fill this role as well. Take the word ‘fast’, which can mean quickly or to be stuck; ‘at high speed’ is the opposite of ‘unable to move’. The preposition ‘off’ depends on the context as to its meaning, which, among many, include both activate (the alarm went off) and deactivate (Turn the light off). Other great examples of prepositions include ‘out of’ (I almost never get out of the house – meaning outside/I work out of my house – meaning inside) and ‘out’ (The lights were out – not visible/the full moon was out – visible).

Two of my favourite contronyms are verbs. The first is ‘to stone’. This contronym actually has 3 meanings, although only 2 are really contronyms. If you stone a fruit, it means you remove the stone or pip in the middle. If you stone a person, you throw rocks at them until (usually) they are dead. The third meaning is ‘to be stoned’, or under the influence of marijuana.

The second is ‘to dust’. If someone is dusting a house, they are removing particulates of microscopic biological matter and detritus that has built up. If you are dusting a cake, you are adding (usually) sugary particulates to the baked confection. Don’t make the mistake of dusting a cake before dusting your house! You might apply the wrong dusting.

What are your favourite contronyms? Let me know in the comments below!

If you are interested in learning more about the English language, along with some of its peculiarities, visit my page of Teaching English.

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