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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 (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contronym (also spelled contranym),[2] is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is called enantiosemy,[3][4] enantionymy or antilogy. An enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic.

An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god),[2][5] enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd).[6][7]


The terms "autantonym" and "contronym" were 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 definitions. For example, sanction — "permit" or "penalize"; bolt (originally from crossbows) — "leave quickly" or "fix"; fast — "moving rapidly" or "unmoving". Many English examples result from nouns being verbed in the patterns of "add <noun> to" and "remove <noun> from"; e.g. dust, seed, stone.

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").

Sometimes one sense of an antonym's use is derived from an originally different word. 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.

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."[8]

In addition, various neologisms or other such words contain simultaneous opposing meanings in the same context, rather than alternative meanings depending on context (e.g. coopetition).

In other languages[edit]

Auto-antonyms exist in many languages.

In Latin, sacer has the double meaning "sacred, holy" and "accursed, infamous".

The Spanish word huésped may mean either "host" (only in Biology terminology) or, "guest" (common meaning). To avoid this ambiguity, the term "anfitrión" may be used instead of "huésped" in Biology. The Italian and French cognates, ospite and hôte, respectively, also can mean "host" or "guest". All three words derive from the Latin hospes , which also carries both meanings.

The Romanian verb a închiria means "to rent" as well as "to let". Hindi: कल and Urdu: کل‎ (kal [kəl]) may mean either "yesterday" or "tomorrow" (disambiguated by the verb in the sentence). 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).

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." Latin altus can be translated "high" or "deep" in English, but in Latin had the single meaning "large in the vertical dimension". In English, the difference between "high" and "deep" is determined by the speaker's relationship to a baseline (usually, the altitude of the surrounding area). 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.


  • "Cleave" can mean "to cling" or "to split apart."[2][9]
  • "Clip" can mean "attach" or "cut off"[5]
  • "Dust" can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (e.g. to dust a cake with powdered sugar).[2][9]
  • "Egregious" can mean "outstandingly bad." Was originally used to mean "remarkably good."
  • "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][9]
  • "Hew" can mean "to chop" or (in North America) "to adhere".
  • "Impregnable" can mean "invulnerable" and also (vulnerable) to impregnation.[2][5]
  • "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.")[5]
  • "Literally" can mean of a literal or exactly true nature, or it can be used to emphasize and exaggerate obviously untrue statements.[10][11]
  • "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][9]
  • "Strike" can mean to act decisively, or to refuse to act.

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 "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. ^ a b c d "Nym Words > Autoantonyms". Retrieved 2016-09-22. 
  6. ^ "'Addad' : a study of homo-polysemous opposites in Arabic". Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  7. ^ Gall, Nick. "Antagonyms". Retrieved 2 August 2011. 
  8. ^ O’Toole, Garson (31 October 2012). "St Paul’s Cathedral Is Amusing, Awful, and Artificial". Quote Investigator. Retrieved 22 January 2015. 
  9. ^ a b c d "14 Words That Are Their Own Opposites". Retrieved 2016-09-22. 
  10. ^ Coleman, Dana. "According to the dictionary, “literally” now also means “figuratively”". Salon. Retrieved 2017-03-27. 
  11. ^ "Autoantonym -". Retrieved 2017-03-27. 

Further reading[edit]

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