Contronyms

I recently came across a word that was new to me: contronym. A contronym is a word that is its own opposite. An often-given example is sanction. Sanctioning an action can mean either penalising it or permitting it.

Some other examples are:

WordOne meaningAnother meaning
cleave clingsplit
clipattachcut off
dustremove dustadd a layer of dust
apologystatement of regret for an actiondefence of an action
undoableable to be undoneunable to be done
fastquickfixed in position

Contronyms can arise for various reasons:

  • 2 originally separate words can coalesce—for example, because of sound changes. Modern English cleave derives from 2 separate Old English words: clifian (‘adhere’) and clēofan (‘split’).
  • words can develop new senses (perhaps specialised) that then co-exist with the continuing original sense.
  • words with different internal structures can look and sound the same: [undo][able] (‘able to be undone’) vs [un][doable] (‘unable to be done’)
  • one dialect can keep the original sense of a word while another dialect keeps an opposite sense. One common example is the verb table (eg ‘table a motion’). In British English, this means ‘discus a topic’. But in American English, it means ‘postpone discussion of topic’.

Some words that aren’t contronyms

The internet is swimming with lists of items claimed to be contronyms. Actually, very few of them seem to be true contronyms. In most of the others:

  • the word appears in 2 different grammatical structures in the 2 allegedly opposite meanings;
  • one meaning is very specialised, obviously figurative or an obvious extension of a more central meaning; or
  • one meaning has a more positive connotation and the other meaning has a more negative connotation, but they are not opposites of each other.   

Here are a few items from some of those lists, with my reasons for thinking they are not true contronyms:

  • bolt: (1) fix something something to something else; (2) run fast. The first verb is transitive but the second verb is intransitive.
  • oversight: (1) accidental omission or error; (2) close scrutiny. The first word refers to an outcome but the second refers to a process.
  • citation (1) commendation; (2) condemnation. Here, the underlying meaning seems to be the same: a reference. The reference is either positive (commendation) or negative (condemnation).
  • fine (1): excellent; (2) sufficient, passable. The two meanings are different points on a scale but are not opposites of each other.

One debatable case is rent and its near-synonyms lease and let. Person A can rent an item from person B but the same activity can also be described as person B renting the item to person A. The same action is described in both cases, but from 2 different viewpoints. Arguably, the contrast here is just between those viewpoints, not between 2 opposites.

Synonyms for contronym

Some people spell contronym as contranym. The first spelling focuses on the suffix -onym (including the linking vowel -o-, as in synonym or antonym), whereas the second spelling focuses on the prefix contra-.

Other words for contronym (or contranym) are autoantonym, autantonym and entantionym. These all mean ‘self-opposite’.

Other languages

English isn’t the only language with controynyms. One German controynym is the verb aufheben. Among other things, this can mean both ‘keep’ and ‘eliminate’.

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