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An auto-antonym or autantonym, also called a contronym[1] or antagonym among other terms, is a word with multiple meanings (senses) of which one is the reverse of another. For example, the word cleave can mean "to cut apart" or "to bind together". This phenomenon is called enantiosemy,[2][3] enantionymy (enantio- means "opposite"), antilogy or autantonymy. An enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic.


An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, contronym, contranym, enantiodrome, enantionym, Janus word (after the Roman god Janus, who is usually depicted with two faces),[1] self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd).[4][5]

Linguistic mechanisms[edit]

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.

Other contronyms are a form of polysemy, but where a single word acquires different and ultimately opposite definitions. For example, sanction—"permit" or "penalize"; bolt (originally from crossbows)—"leave quickly" or "fix/immobilize"; fast—"moving rapidly" or "unmoving". Some English examples result from nouns being verbed in the patterns of "add <noun> to" and "remove <noun> from"; e.g. dust, seed, stone. Denotations and connotations can drift or branch over centuries. 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".[6] Negative words such as bad and sick sometimes acquire ironic senses referring to traits that are impressive and admired, if not necessarily positive (that outfit is bad as hell; lyrics full of sick burns).

Some contronyms result from differences in 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 (where British English would have "shelve", which in this sense has an identical meaning in American English). To barrack, in Australian English, is to loudly demonstrate support, while in British English it is to express disapproval and contempt.

Some words contain simultaneous opposing or competing meanings in the same context, rather than alternative meanings in different contexts; examples include blend words such as coopetition (meaning a murky blend of cooperation and competition), frenemy (meaning a murky blend of friend and enemy), glocalization, etc. These are not usually classed as contronyms, but they share the theme of containing opposing meanings.

Auto-antonyms exist in many languages, as the following examples show.

In Latin, sacer has the double meaning "sacred, holy" and "accursed, infamous". Greek δημιουργός gave Latin its demiurgus, from which English got its demiurge, which can refer either to God as the creator or to the devil, depending on philosophical context.

In many languages, a word stem associated with a single event may treat the action of that event as unitary, so it can refer to any of the doings or persons on either side of the transaction, that is, to the action of either the subject or the object, or to either the person who does something or the person to whom (or for whom) it is done. Other cues nail down the aspects of subject versus object. Thus there is a simple logic involved, despite that discussions of such words sometimes fixate on a superficial appearance of illogic (that is, "how can one word mean both?!") such as in words for borrow and lend; see #Examples below.



  • Cleave can mean "to cling" or "to split apart".[1][7]
  • Clip can mean "attach" or "cut off".[1]
  • Dust can mean "to remove dust” (cleaning a house) or "to add dust" (e.g. to dust a cake with powdered sugar).[1][7]
  • Fast can mean "without moving; fixed in place", (holding fast, also as in "steadfast"), or "moving quickly".[1][7]
  • Obbligato in music can refer to a passage that is either "obligatory" or "optional".[8]
  • Oversight can mean "accidental omission or error", or "close scrutiny and control".
  • Peruse can mean to "consider with attention and in detail" or "look over or through in a casual or cursory manner".[9][10]
  • Ravel can mean "to separate" (e.g. threads in cloth) or "entangle".[11]
  • Sanction can mean "approve" or "penalize".
  • Table can mean "to discuss a topic at a meeting" (British English) or "to postpone discussion of a topic" (American English).[12]

Other languages[edit]

  • Nouns
    • The Korean noun (ap) may mean either "future" or "past" (distinguished by context).
  • Verbs
    • The German verb ausleihen, the Dutch verb lenen, the Polish verb pożyczyć, the Russian verb одолжить (odolžítʹ), the Finnish verb lainata, and the Esperanto verb prunti can mean either "to lend" or "to borrow", with case, pronouns, and mention of persons making the sense clear. The verb stem conveys that "a lending-and-borrowing event is occurring", and the other cues convey who is lending to whom. This makes sense because anytime lending is occurring, borrowing is simultaneously occurring; one cannot happen without the other.
    • The Romanian verb a închiria, the French verb louer, and the Finnish verb vuokrata[13] mean "to rent" (as the lessee does) as well as "to let" (as the lessor does).
    • The Swahili verb kutoa means both "to remove" and "to add".
    • In his Limited Views: Essays on Ideas and Letters, Qian Zhongshu gave some examples of Chinese auto-antonyms, like "廢" meaning both "to abolish" and "to establish". He named this kind of phenomenon "reverse symbolism"(反象以徵).
    • The Persian verb چیدن (čidan) means both "to pluck" and "to arrange" (i.e. by putting objects down).
    • In Spanish dar (basic meaning "to give"), when applied to lessons or subjects, can mean "to teach", "to take classes" or "to recite", depending on the context.[14]
  • Adverbs
    • Hindi: कल and Urdu: کل (kal [kəl]) may mean either "yesterday" or "tomorrow" (disambiguated by the verb in the sentence).
    • Irish: ar ball can mean both "a while ago" and "in a little bit/later on"[15]
  • Agent nouns
  • Adjectives
    • The Latin sinister means both "auspicious" (from Roman tradition) and "inauspicious" (from Greek tradition). The negative Greek meaning was carried on into French and ultimately English.[16]
    • Latin nimius means "excessive, too much". It maintained this meaning in Spanish nimio, but it was also misinterpreted as "insignificant, without importance".[17]
    • minh means among other things "bright, clear" (from Sino-Vietnamese ) and "dead, gloomy" (from ). Because of this, the name of the dwarf planet Pluto is not adapted from 冥王星 as in Chinese, Japanese and Korean.[18][19][20]

Seeming auto-antonyms can occur from translation. In Hawaiian, for example, aloha is translated both as "hello" and as "goodbye", but the essential meaning of the word is "love", whether used as a greeting or farewell. The Italian greeting ciao is translated as "hello" or "goodbye" depending on the context; the original meaning was "at your service" (literally "(I'm your) slave").[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Nym Words > Autoantonyms". Retrieved 2016-09-22.
  2. ^ Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2003). Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 11, 77., where "enantiosemy" is mentioned along with "auto-opposite".
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ "'Addad' : a study of homo-polysemous opposites in Arabic". Retrieved 2 August 2011.
  5. ^ Gall, Nick. "Antagonyms". Retrieved 2 August 2011.
  6. ^ O’Toole, Garson (31 October 2012). "St Paul's Cathedral Is Amusing, Awful, and Artificial". Quote Investigator. Retrieved 22 January 2015.
  7. ^ a b c Herman, Judith (5 June 2018). "25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites (reprinted from Mental Floss)". Retrieved 2021-08-20.
  8. ^ Obbligato
  9. ^ "Definition of PERUSE". Retrieved 28 June 2020. to ... EFFECT
  10. ^ "Janus Words". Retrieved 28 June 2020. to ... EFFECT
  11. ^ The Canadian Oxford dictionary (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. p. 1283. ISBN 9780195418163. entangle...disentangle, unravel
  12. ^ Barber, Katherine, ed. (2004). Canadian Oxford Dictionary (Second ed.). Don Mills, Ontario: Oxford University Press Canada. p. 1580. ISBN 9780195418163.
  13. ^ "". Archived from the original on 2021-11-26.
  14. ^ "dar". Diccionario de la lengua española (in Spanish) (23 ed.). RAE-ASALE. 2021. Retrieved 22 April 2022. 14. tr. Impartir una lección, pronunciar una conferencia o charla. 15. tr. Recibir una clase. Ayer dimos clase de matemáticas. 16. tr. Dicho de un alumno: Recitar la lección.
  15. ^ "Foclóir Gaeilge–Béarla (Ó Dónaill): ar ball".
  16. ^ "sinister (adj.)".
  17. ^ "nimio, nimia". Diccionario de la lengua española (in Spanish) (23 ed.). RAE-ASALE. 2021. Retrieved 22 April 2022.
  18. ^ Renshaw, Steve; Ihara, Saori (2000). "A Tribute to Houei Nojiri". Archived from the original on December 6, 2012. Retrieved November 29, 2011.
  19. ^ "Planetary Linguistics". Archived from the original on December 17, 2007. Retrieved June 12, 2007.
  20. ^ Bathrobe. "Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese". Archived from the original on July 20, 2011. Retrieved November 29, 2011.
  21. ^ Ronnie Ferguson, A linguistic history of Venice, 2007, ISBN 882225645X, p. 284

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]