From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Contronym)
Jump to: navigation, search
In English, "inflammable" is an auto-antonym which can mean either "combustible" or "noncombustible"[1] so English safety labels typically use "Flammable". In Spanish and French "inflam[m]able" only means "combustible", so a multilingual safety cabinet can appear to be contradictory- is this a cabinet for combustible or noncombustible materials?

An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contronym (also spelled contranym), is a word with a homograph (another word of the same spelling) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). Variant names include antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god), enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, addad (Arabic, singular didd).[2][3] It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is also called enantiosemy,[4] enantionymy or antilogy.


The terms "autantonym" and "contronym" were originally coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960 and Jack Herring in 1962, respectively. Some pairs of contronyms are true homographs, i.e., distinct words with different etymology which happen to have the same form. For instance cleave "separate" is from Old English clēofan, while cleave "adhere" is from Old English clifian, which was pronounced differently. This is related to false friends, but false friends do not necessarily contradict.

Other contronyms are a form of polysemy, but where a single word acquires different and ultimately opposite senses. For instance quite, which meant "clear" or "free" in Middle English, can mean "slightly" (quite nice) or "completely" (quite beautiful). Other examples include sanction — "permit" or "penalize"; bolt (originally from crossbows) — "leave quickly" or "fixed"; fast — "moving rapidly" or "unmoving". Many English examples result from nouns being verbed into distinct senses "add <noun> to" and "remove <noun> from"; e.g. dust, seed, stone.

Some contronyms result from differences in national varieties of English. For example, to table a bill means "to put it up for debate" in British English, while it means "to remove it from debate" in American English.

Often, one sense is more obscure or archaic, increasing the danger of misinterpretation when it does occur; for instance, the King James Bible often uses "let" in the sense of "forbid", a meaning which is now obsolete, except in the legal phrase "without let or hindrance" and in tennis, squash and table tennis.

An apocryphal story relates how Charles II (or sometimes Queen Anne) described St Paul's Cathedral (using contemporaneous English) as "awful, pompous, and artificial," with the meaning (rendered in modern English) of "awe-inspiring, majestic, and ingeniously designed."

Auto-antonyms also exist in other languages. For example, in Latin sacer has the double meaning "sacred, holy" and "accursed, infamous", French hôte may mean either "host" or "guest"; the same is true for the Italian cognate ospite (both deriving from the Latin hospes). Hindi: कल and Urdu: کل‎ (kal [kəl]) may mean either "yesterday" or "tomorrow" (disambiguated by the verb in the sentence). Italian ciao is a greeting that is translated as "hello" or "goodbye" depending on the context, and Swahili verb 'kutoa', meaning both "to remove" and "to add".

Sometimes an apparent opposition of senses comes from presuming the point of view of a different language. In Hawaiian, for example, aloha is translated both as “hello” and as “goodbye”, but the essential meaning of the word is “love”, making it appropriate as both greeting and farewell. The meaning is in fact the same; it is only the occasion that is different. Latin altus can be translated "high" or "deep" in English, but in Latin had the single meaning "large in the vertical dimension". The difference in English between "high" and "deep" is determined by the speaker's awareness of their relationship to some perceived norm. A mountain is "high" because it is well above sea level, and the ocean is "deep" because it plunges well below it. Both, however, were altus in Latin. This concept is superficially similar to a few examples in Italian, such as snow, which is described as being "high", [alta], rather than "deep", but this is because it is considered to be heaped above the reference level of the ground, rather than a throwback to Latin. The adjective, "profondo" is used instead to describe the idea of depth below a given reference level, so the sea is "profondo", along with the vast majority of examples in which "deep" would be used in English. In Italian, "alto mare" means not "deep sea" but "high sea", with the same meaning as English of "open water beyond territorial limits". The tide, marea, also follows the same pattern as English, being either "high" or "low", depending on whether it is above or below the mean. However, Italian, French and Spanish all use their own equivalents of "high" to describe cooking pots, frying pans and saucepans which in English would be called "deep". In English, "tall", as a synonym of "high", would only be used to describe a pot when its height is considerably greater than its diameter, and drinking glasses with such proportions are also referred to as "tall" rather than "deep".

In addition various neologisms or other such words contain simultaneous opposing meanings when in the same context rather than alternate meanings depending on context, such as coopetition.


  • "All but" can mean "except for" or "almost entirely".
  • "To apologize" is to express remorse and conciliation for something, but an "apologist" is one who advocates or argues for something and "apologetics" is the discipline of defending a position (often religious) through the systematic use of information.
  • "Apparent" can mean "obvious" or "seeming, but in fact not."
  • "Awful" can mean "worthy of awe" or "very bad."
  • "Besides" means "other than; except for; instead of", but can also mean "in addition (to)."
  • "Buckle" can mean "fasten securely" as in "buckle your seat belt", or it can mean "collapse by bending" as in "buckle under pressure."
  • "Check" can mean "an amount of money given to an individual" (e.g. a paycheck) or "an amount of money an individual owes to another party" (e.g. at a restaurant).
  • "Chuffed" can mean "displeased; disgruntled" or "pleased; satisfied."
  • "Citation" can mean "commendation" or a "summons to appear in court."
  • "Clip" can mean "to separate" or "to attach"
  • "To cleave" can mean "to cling" or "to split."
  • "Custom" can mean "standard" (shorthand for customary) or "tailored."
  • "Dank" can mean "moist and unappealing" or can be used informally as "delicious"
  • "Discretion" can mean "judgment" or "secrecy". In line with the "secrecy" definition, the phrase "absolute discretion" means not to disclose private information under any circumstances, i.e. to act in a predetermined manner rather than exercise judgment.
  • "Discursive" can mean "covering a wide field of subjects; rambling" or "proceeding to a conclusion through reason rather than intuition."
  • “Down” can mean both “good” (as in “The wine goes down.”) and miserable.
  • "To dust" can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (dust a cake with powdered sugar).
  • "Egregious" can mean "outstandingly bad" or in archaic writing "remarkably good."
  • "Enjoin" can mean "command" and "forbid."
  • "Fast" can mean "moving quickly" as in "running fast," or it can mean "not moving" as in "stuck fast."
  • "To fight with someone" can mean "to fight against someone" or "to fight alongside someone."
  • "Fit" can mean healthy as in "The man runs everyday, he is fit." Or unhealthy "The boy gets frequent fits." A sudden attack of convulsions and/or loss of consciousness, typical of epilepsy and some other medical conditions.
  • "For" as a preposition can mean to be "in favor of" ("I'm for peace") or "against" ("take aspirin for a headache").
  • "To go off" can mean "begin to make a sound" ("the alarm went off") or "stop operating" ("the alarm will go off after one minute").
  • "Impregnable" can mean "able to be impregnated" or "incapable of being entered."
  • "Inflammable" technically means "capable of burning" but is commonly used to mean "unburnable".[1]
  • "Intermarriage" can mean "marriage within a specific group" or "marriage between members of different groups".
  • "Left" can mean "to depart" or "to remain."
  • "Literally" can mean "word for word, not metaphorically or idiomatically", but is also often used informally as an intensifier for figurative statements, ending up roughly synonymous with "virtually, figuratively."[5]
  • "Near miss" used to mean "to barely miss", but literally means "to hit".
  • "Nonplussed" can mean (of a person) "surprised and confused so much that they are unsure how to react", but is often used informally as "not disconcerted; unperturbed."
  • "Off" can mean "deactivated" as in "to turn off", or it can mean "activated" as in "the alarm went off."
  • "Out" can mean "available" as in "the latest model is out" or "unavailable" as in "Sorry, we're out".
  • "To overlook" can mean "to inspect" or "to fail to notice."
  • "Oversight" (uncountable) means "supervision", "an oversight" (countable) means "not noticing something."
  • "To peruse" can mean "to examine in detail", or "to look over in a cursory manner."
  • "Pass on" can mean "reject from" and "continue through a process" (e.g. "Let's pass on this candidate").
  • "Pitted" can mean "has pits", or "the pits have been removed."
  • "Radical" can mean "related to roots or origins" such as "radical leaves" or "breaking from tradition" as in "political radicals."
  • "Ravel" can mean to combine thread or to separate it.
  • "Refrain" means both non-action and the repetition of an action, e.g. in musical notation.
  • "To rent" can mean "to borrow from" or "to lend to."
  • "To replace" can mean "to place back where it was" or "substitute with something else".
  • "Resigned" can mean "to have signed again" or "to have quit". The former is sometimes hyphenated as re-signed.
  • "To sanction" can mean "to permit" or "to punish."
  • "To screen" can mean to show or to hide.
  • "Shelled" can mean "having a shell" or "has had the shell removed."
  • "To skin" means "to cover with skin" (as in to skin a drum) as well as "to strip or peel off" (as in to skin an animal).
  • "Snuff" can mean a specific kind of tobacco, as well as to inhale it, and to extinguish.
  • "To stay" can mean "to remain in a specific place, to postpone" or "to guide direction, movement."
  • "Stem-winder" means "a rousing political speech" but can also mean "a long, boring speech."[6]
  • "To stint" means "to stop", but the noun "stint" refers to the interval of work between stops.
  • "Strike" can mean "eliminate" ("to strike from the record") or "to secure" ("to strike an accord").
  • "Strike", in baseball terms, can mean "to hit the ball" or "to miss the ball."
  • "Stroke" as a verb means "caress" while as a noun, "a forceful hit."
  • "Terrific" can mean "very good" or "very bad."
  • "To toast" can mean to invite praise or to reprimand.
  • "Unpacked" can mean full or empty (in reference to boxes, luggage, etc.).[7][8]
  • "Weather" can mean "to endure" or "to disintegrate."
  • "Weedy" can mean "overgrown" ("The garden is weedy") or stunted ("The boy looks weedy").
  • "Wicked" can mean "evil or morally wrong", or can colloquially mean "excellent."

A literary example in the form of an extended prose reflection is Samuel Beckett's Stirrings Still.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Strunk and White (1979). The Elements of Style. New York: MacMillan. p. 47. 
  2. ^ "'Addad' : a study of homo-polysemous opposites in Arabic". Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  3. ^ Gall, Nick. "Antagonyms". Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  4. ^ Liberman, Anatoly (25 September 2013). "Etymology gleanings for September 2013". Oxford Etymologist. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 25 September 2013. "The coexistence of two opposite meanings in a word is called enantiosemy, and the examples are rather numerous." 
  5. ^ According to the dictionary, “literally” now also means “figuratively” (, Aug. 12, 2013)
  6. ^
  7. ^ Can a Word Mean its Own Opposite?
  8. ^

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]