Contronyms: Words That Contradict Themselves

Clarity is the ultimate goal of every writer, but there are always words that can be misread, misunderstood or misinterpreted by readers who don’t pick up on context clues. This is especially true when the word is a contronym.

Less familiar than synonym and antonym, the contronym is a word that has two meanings that contradict one another. For example, “sanction” can signify permission to do something, or it can be a measure forbidding it to do something. Also called an antagonym, autoantonym or Janus word, ensuring that the context clearly shows the meaning of the word is critical.

In “Words That Are Their Own Opposites,” the author lists 25 of the most commonly used contronyms that, when used, warrant careful proofreading of the paragraph to be sure that the context makes the definition of the word clear.

In addition to “sanction,” the list includes:

  1. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon (“look at from above”) means “supervise” (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, “over” plus videre, “to see.”) Overlook usually means the opposite: “to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.”
  2. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)
  3. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.
  4. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning “to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange,” trim came to mean “to prepare, make ready.” Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: “to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance” or “to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of.” And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chainsaw?
  5. Off means “deactivated,” as in to turn off, but also “activated,” as in the alarm went off.
  6. Weather can mean “to withstand or come safely through” (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean “to be worn away” (the rock was weathered).
  7. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).
  8. Go means “to proceed,” but also “give out or fail,” i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”
  9. Out can mean “visible” or “invisible.” For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”
  10. Toss out could be either “to suggest” or “to discard”: “I decided to toss out the idea.”

For the full list and a link to more contronyms, see the full article.