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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 Twadell 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/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."[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"). To barrack for anyone in Australian English is to loudly demonstrate your support, while it expresses disapproval and contempt in American English and British English.

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), interdependence, 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?!"). Examples:

  • Verbs
    • The German verb ausleihen and the Finnish verb lainata 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.
    • English awesome can mean "inducing awe/respect" or "cool, splendid"

Contemporary English has some auto-antonym adjectives that are used for evaluating: sick can mean "ill" or "extremely good"; bad can mean "bad" or "excellent"; words like cool or in may be evaluate something that is "warm" or "out", respectively ("This new fireplace is cool." or "Outdoor activities are in, now."). We may hear evaluations like "pretty ugly", "ridiculously serious", "insanely rational", "incredibly trustworthy", "impossibly doable", "super sub-par".

Among profanities, adjective or article decides its meaning, for example:

  • "I'm not gonna be a bitch - I'm gonna be the bitch!"
  • "Don't be an ass - be bad ass!"
  • "The first pizza was shit; the second one, though, was the shit."
  • "She thinks she's hot shit but she's not shit."

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]

  • Appropriate” can mean “to give (money or assets) to” or “to delegate to,” as well as “to take something (for one’s own use).”
  • "Biweekly" can mean occurring every two weeks and occurring twice a week[8][9][10]
  • "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).
  • "Chuffed" can mean "pleased" or "displeased."
  • "Cleave" can mean "to cling" or "to split apart."[2][11]
  • "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.
  • "Drop" can mean to delete or eliminate (e.g., to drop a song from a playlist), but it is also slang for releasing an artistic creation into the world (e.g., to drop a new song on a music streaming service). So, the sentence "Her latest song was dropped" has two opposing meanings.
  • "Downhill" can mean things are getting worse, or getting easier.
  • "Draw" the curtains can mean either to open them or to close them.
  • "Dust" can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (e.g. to dust a cake with powdered sugar).[2][11]
  • "Earthbound" can mean either unable to move from the earth or heading towards it.
  • "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".
  • "Execute" can mean either to put into action , or to kill (a person).
  • A factoid can either be a false statement presented as true, or a genuinely true but insignificant 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][11]
  • "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" ("in-" functioning as an intensifer) 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")
  • "Limit" can be inclusive or exclusive. For example, a request to "limit the damage to the clock tower" can mean to protect the clock tower from damage or to protect everything else but the clock tower from damage.
  • "Literally" can mean of a literal or exactly true nature, or it can be used to emphasize and exaggerate obviously untrue statements.[12][13]
  • "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").
  • "Nothing", for example in a phrase such as "nothing exists", could mean "there isn't anything (that exists)" or it could mean "there is something (that exists)", namely 'nothing'.
  • "Original" can mean "as it was at the beginning" (e.g. "This is the original packaging.") or "brand new" ("What an original idea!").
  • "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".
  • "Peruse" can mean either to read or go over attentively or read in a casual or cursory manner (e.g. peruse the collection).
  • "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."
  • "Sap" can mean "vigor" or "energy" as a noun, or "gradually weaken" as a verb.
  • "Scan" can mean "scrutinize" or "skim."
  • "Screen" can mean "to show" or "to conceal."[2][11]
  • "Story" can either specifically mean an untrue account of events (i.e., saying "It was just a story" implies something is not true) or a factual one (i.e., a news story)
  • "Strike" can mean to act decisively, or to refuse to act. Also, it can mean to hit, or to miss (as in baseball). In addition, it can mean to create ("strike a deal") or eliminate ("strike that line from the record").
  • "Transparent" can mean "easy to perceive or detect", or "invisible" (as in computing i.e., "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. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ a b c d "14 Words That Are Their Own Opposites". Retrieved 2016-09-22.
  12. ^ Coleman, Dana. "According to the dictionary, "literally" now also means "figuratively"". Salon. Retrieved 2017-03-27.
  13. ^ "Autoantonym -". Retrieved 2017-03-27.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]