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In English, "inflammable" means "combustible", but can be taken to mean "non-flammable" by people who wrongly treat the "in-" as meaning "not",[1] so English safety labels typically use "flammable".

An auto-antonym or autantonym, also called a contronym or contranym,[2] 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,[3][4] enantionymy or antilogy (enantio- means "opposite"). An enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic.


The terms "autantonym" and "contronym" were coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960 and Jack Herring in 1962, respectively. An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god with two faces),[2][2] enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd).[5][6]

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. The King James Bible often uses "let" in the sense of "forbid", a meaning which is now uncommon, and which is derived from the Old English verb lettan 'hinder, delay, impede, oppress', as opposed to the meaning "allow", which is derived from the Old English verb lǣtan 'leave, allow, let on lease (etc.)'. Still, the alternate meaning of "let" can be found today in the legal phrase "without let or hindrance" and in ball games such as tennis, squash, table tennis, and racquetball.

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"; 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."[7] 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").

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) and frenemy (meaning a murky blend of friend and enemy). 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?!"). Examples:

  • Verbs
    • The German verb ausleihen 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 English verb appropriate has several senses with a unitary theme of assets being assigned; it can thus refer either to one giving assets to someone else or one taking assets for oneself. The superficial "contradiction" is that giving and taking are "opposites", but the unity is on the level of "assets being assigned". This is comparable to the German example with the lending-and-borrowing event: similarly, "opposite" sides of a single coin are (figuratively) involved. The coin analogy is useful because it reveals another latent English example of the same cognitive unity: One could ask why "flipping a coin" in English can "paradoxically" refer to either flipping and getting heads or flipping and getting tails. We don't have separate words, *heads-ing and *tails-ing; rather, we have the one word, flipping. Thus I flipped him for it at the same time that he flipped me for it; it is not the idiomatic nature of English to say that I *heads-ed him for it whereas he *tails-ed me for it, although any language could potentially develop that contrasting pair. In the German example, the comparable thought is that I lendborrowed to him at the same time that he lendborrowed from me—despite that English cannot idiomatically translate it that way because English currently lacks such a word as *lendborrow.
    • The Romanian verb a închiria means "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).
  • Adverbs
    • Hindi: कल and Urdu: کل‎ (kal [kəl]) may mean either "yesterday" or "tomorrow" (disambiguated by the verb in the sentence).
  • Agent nouns
  • Adjectives
    • Latin altus can be translated to English as either "high" (↑) or "deep" (↓), whereas in Latin it has the single meaning "large in the vertical dimension" (↕). In English.

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; however, the original meaning was “(I'm your) slave."

Examples of English-language auto-antonyms[edit]

  • "Bound" can mean "tied into immobility" or "leaping, jumping".
  • "Cite" can mean "to recognize a good deed or performance" (cite for bravery) or "to require a court appearance" (often not a good thing, such as citing for DUI).
  • "Cleave" can mean "to cling" or "to split apart."[2][8]
  • "Clip" can mean "attach" or "cut off"[2]
  • "Demiurge" can refer either to God as the creator or to the devil, depending on philosophical context.
  • "Dust" can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (e.g. to dust a cake with powdered sugar).[2][8]
  • "Egregious" can mean "outstandingly bad." Was originally used to mean "remarkably good." The word's roots mean simply "standing out from the rest of the group", a concept that can apply either "in a good way" or "in a bad way".
  • A factoid can either be a false statement present as true, or a genuinely true but insignifcant statement.
  • "Fast" as an adjective or adverb can mean "without moving; fixed in place", as in "holding fast" (also as in "steadfast"), or it can mean "moving quickly."[2][8]
  • "Hew" can mean "to chop" or (in North America) "to adhere".
  • "Impregnable" can mean "invulnerable" and also (vulnerable) to impregnation.[2][2]
  • "Inflammable" technically means "capable of burning" but is commonly misunderstood to mean "unburnable".[1]
  • "Let" can mean "allow" or "prevent" (Hamlet says, "I'll make a ghost of him that lets me.")[2]
  • "Left" can mean "remain" or "leave" ("He left the room" or "He was the last one left in the room")
  • "Literally" can mean of a literal or exactly true nature, or it can be used to emphasize and exaggerate obviously untrue statements.[9][10]
  • "Nonplussed" can mean "baffled" or "perplexed", but in North America can also mean "not disconcerted" or "unperturbed".
  • "Off" can mean "activated" / "beginning to make a noise" (e.g. "The alarm went off") or "deactivated" / "ceasing operation" (e.g. "The alarm turned off by itself").
  • "Overlook" can mean to miss seeing something, or a place to see something from above.
  • "Oversight" can mean "accidental omission or error", or "close scrutiny and control".
  • "Refrain" can mean either non-action or the repetition of an action (e.g. in musical notation).
  • "Restive" can mean "having difficulty staying still" ("restless") or "reluctant to move."
  • "Sanction" can mean "approve" or "penalize."
  • "Screen" can mean "to show" or "to conceal."[2][8]
  • "Strike" can mean to act decisively, or to refuse to act.
  • "Then" can refer to a preceding or succeeding condition. (e.g. "Henry then had a history of unprovoked violence")
  • "Transparent" can mean "easy to perceive or detect", or (in computing) "functioning without the user being aware of its presence"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Strunk and White (1979). The Elements of Style. New York: MacMillan. p. 47. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Nym Words > Autoantonyms". Retrieved 2016-09-22. 
  3. ^ Pages 11 and 77 in Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew, by Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, where "enantiosemy" is mentioned along with "auto-opposite".
  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. ^ "'Addad' : a study of homo-polysemous opposites in Arabic". Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  6. ^ Gall, Nick. "Antagonyms". Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  7. ^ O’Toole, Garson (31 October 2012). "St Paul's Cathedral Is Amusing, Awful, and Artificial". Quote Investigator. Retrieved 22 January 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c d "14 Words That Are Their Own Opposites". Retrieved 2016-09-22. 
  9. ^ Coleman, Dana. "According to the dictionary, "literally" now also means "figuratively"". Salon. Retrieved 2017-03-27. 
  10. ^ "Autoantonym -". Retrieved 2017-03-27. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]