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Contronyms in English

A 5-minute read.

Antonyms, or words that express opposite meanings are common in all living languages. For example, “hot” and “cold,” “up” and “down,” “deny” and “approve.” This is a necessary linguistic feature because words express concepts, and our reality is such that things can be hot or cold, you can move up or down, you can approve or disapprove of something, and so forth. As a result, these opposing concepts fill the language with antonyms.

Words can also have multiple meanings. For instance, “hot” can mean high in temperature or being spicy. That does not create much of a problem because context clues generally clarify the intended meaning. Well... most of the time. The meaning is ambiguous when someone says “This dish is really hot.” Which of the following is the intended meaning?

  • The actual container plate is hot, so you should touch it carefully?
  • The food is hot (in temperature)?
  • The food is spicy?

Contronyms in English

Strangely, however, some words with multiple meanings in English can be the opposite of themselves! These words are called contronyms (also known as contranyms) or Janus words.

One prime example of a contronym is to overlook. If you say, “I overlooked the project,” it could mean,

  • you looked over it, or monitored it (likely to make sure the project was being completed), or
  • you ignored it (and likely failed to make sure it was being completed).

Here are some more examples of contronyms in English:

to bolt

  • to lock, secure something in place.
    Example: The picnic table was bolted to the concrete pavement.
  • to run away suddenly.
    Example: The robber took the money and bolted.

to dust

  • to wipe dust from something.
    Example: After vacuuming the house, I dusted the kitchen table.
  • to cover with dust.
    Example: After baking the roulade, dust it with powdered sugar.

a fix

  • a solution.
    Example: We found a quick fix for this problem.
  • a problem.
    Example: i found myself in an awful fix because I had not finished the project on time.

to help

  • to assist.
    Example: I can't help you today.
  • to prevent.
    Example: I can't help wondering what happened.

left

  • gone.
    Example: He's left the building.
  • reaming.
    Example: He's the only one left in the building.

oversight

  • care, responsibility to supervise.
    Example: The committee has oversight responsibilities to make sure things are done correctly.
  • careless mistake, error.
    Example: Forgetting to thank everyone who helped was an embarrassing oversight.

to peruse

  • to skim, to read without paying attention to details.
    Example: I was bored while I waited for my appointment so I perused old magazines.
  • to examine in detail.
    Example: I perused the article carefully until I found the information I needed.

to rent

  • to lease something in return for payment.
    Example: I rented a room in my house to make extra money.
  • to use someone's property in exchange for payment.
    Example: I did not want to buy a house, so I rented an apartment.

to screen

  • to hide from view (as if with a screen), to block.
    Example: I planted bushes to screen the west side of my house from the summer sun.
  • to show (on a screen).
    Example: They will screen this movie next week.

to seed

  • to add seeds.
    Example: You should seed your vegetable garden as soon as the weather warms up.
  • to remove the seeds.
    Example: You should seed the oranges before making juice with them.

More examples of contronyms are provided at Rink Works.

Snap Language Video

This is a short video provides an excellent summary of the information in this article. It has English, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles. You can also watch it in our YouTube channel.

Other Oddities with Contronyms

In some cases, contronyms appear because of different usage by different groups of people. For example, when you table an issue in the United States, you set it aside so you can deal with it later. In the United Kingdom, when you table an issue, you propose it for discussion.

Depending on who uses it or how it is used, dollop could mean a small amount, a scoop, or a generous amount of something, especially referring to soft food.

Quite could mean "rather" or "fairly" in some contexts or "completely" other contexts.

Context and Meaning

As we can see, vocabulary and meaning are very context-dependent. Although the language has many contronyms, English-language speakers can still understand each other, except perhaps in situation where the speaker needs to clarify the intended meaning.

Aware of possible ambiguities, speakers often add information to clarify the meaning. If you say, I'm clipping coupons from the newspaper, clip unambiguously means "to cut." However, it can also mean "to join" (as with a paperclip) in, I clipped all the coupons together. Note, though, that in the second sentence, the word "together" is added to the verb, which then makes it unambiguous.

Language does not happen in a vacuum. Speakers use contextual cues to understand each other. If a word becomes too ambiguous, speakers will likely stop using it, adapt its meaning, or create a new word.

Learning Vocabulary

This has implications for language learners and language instructors. If you learn words in isolation, you will be missing out on the context in which the word is used. Not only that, you might not realize that the context could change the meaning of a word so drastically that it could mean the opposite.

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