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Contronyms in English

1 June 2019

A 5-minute read.

Antonyms, or words that express opposite meanings, are common in all living languages. But did you know that English has words that have the opposite meaning to themselves? How do speakers resolve the ambiguity that creates? What are the implications for vocabulary learning and teaching?

Antonyms are worods such as "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 and near 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 or 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).

10 Comon Examples

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 bolted when she heard the police sirens.

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

oversight

  • care, responsibility to supervise.
    Example: The committee has oversight over the company's budget.
  • 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 closely until I found the information I needed.

to rent

  • to allow someone to use your property in exchange 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 rented an apartment until I was ready to buy a house.

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 short video has 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, different usage by different groups of people create contronyms. 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, on the other hand, when you table an issue, you propose it for discussion.

Depending on who uses it or how it is used, a 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 intended meaning. If you say, I'm clipping coupons from the newspaper, to 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 resolves the ambiguity.

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, change its meaning, or create a new word.

Learning Vocabulary

The existence of contronyms 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.

Related Topic

Read “5 Reasons English is (Supposedly) Weird.” It presents a linguist’s perspective on the topic and dispels the notion that English is somehow “weirder” relative to other languages because of discrepancies in its vocabulary such as homographs, homophones, and pronunciation. This article has an accompanying video.


Update: Added "Related Topic" section.

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