Monday, 23 June 2014

Contronyms - Words That Are Their Own Opposites

A fork road sign


Noun. Mid-20th century.
[Blend of CONTRA- and -ONYM, on the pattern of synonym and antonym.]

A word with two opposite meanings.

Few things in the English language are more fascinating than the contronym, a word that holds two contradictory meanings. And what's really bizarre is that the average English speaker won't even notice their existence - not even blinking at the notion that an engine that's gone may have left to go somewhere, or it may be completely broken. And even if it's left, has it left to go or is it left behind? Thus, in celebration of these cunningly contrary contronyms, here is a list for you to puzzle over:

In the past, or in the future?
"Regardless of what happened before, your future is before you."

Not sharp, or straight to the point?
"I told him bluntly: Your knife is blunt."

To flee, or to secure?
"He bolted the door before he bolted."

With bones, or having had the bones removed?
"I prefer my boned fish to be thoroughly boned."

Tied up, or heading toward?
"While I was bound with rope, he was bound for home."

To fasten, or to collapse?
"After buckling his belt, his knees buckled."

Indefinite, or definite?
"Are you certain she has that certain something?"

To split, or to join?
"As the axe cleaved the monster's skull, the terrified villagers cleaved together in horror."

Relaxed and informal, or frosty and tense?
"My stuffy parents have a cool relationship with my cool boyfriend."

Removing dust, or applying it?
"While the maid dusted the bedroom, the detective dusted the hallway."

To start, or to kill?
"The general executed his orders by executing the prisoners."

Moving quickly, or completely stuck?
"The fast car was stuck fast in the mud."

To run, or to break?
"This car's about to go."

Hold up
To support, or to impede?
"Holding up my drunk wife is holding me up."

Departed, or remained?
"When the police left, we were left."

On, or not on?
"The alarm went off."

Watching over, or failure to watch over?
"Not giving me oversight was an oversight."

Capable, or limited?
"While qualified, he only got a qualified endorsement from the board."

Somewhat, or absolutely?
"He's quite handsome."

To pay rent for, or to rent out?
"I'm renting a flat."

To ban, or to approve of?
"The UN officially sanctioned sanctioning the rogue state."

To remove stones from, or to hurl stones at?
"He was stoned for stoning the Sacred Peach."

Arousing suspicion, or suspicious of others?
"The detective was suspicious."

To soften, or strengthen?
"Tempering metal is a great way to temper your temper."

Doing one's best, or hard to endure?
"Your child, while trying, is trying."

A selection, or one of a kind?
"I'd rather have a variety of apples than this variety of apple."

Against, at one's side or using?
"I fought with my brother."

Do you know of any other contronyms?

Do please leave your most ambiguously equivocal comments in the box below. 


  1. I adore contranyms and would use them all the time but for the fear of confusing people. Until there's some siren to alert people to their use, however, I'm going to have to try to resist their siren call.

    1. Do you have a favourite, Sally? I particularly like 'certain'. Come to think of it, 'rather' is a contronym in a similar vein to 'certain', as in: "He's rather handsome." That could mean either he's really handsome, or just somewhat handsome. Or is it only posh people that use 'rather' like that?

    2. It's quite hard to choose, isn't it. I like the fact that we fought with the Americans both on D Day and at Bunker Hill.

    3. It's not quite contronymic, but I like the idea of fighting *with* the Americans, as if we're wielding them like a sword.

    4. Weather, handicap, strike, trim, moot, impregnable also Janus-Faced English

  2. So:

    Criminal A: The alarm's gone off.

    Criminal B: It's gone off? What do you mean?

    Criminal A: It's gone off. The alarm has gone off. Could I be any clearer?

    Criminal B: Well, yes, actually. You see, 'off' is a contronym, and in this context it's not clear whether you mean the alarm is now not on, or it's been triggered.

    Criminal A: The context? How about the bell that started ringing at the same moment I said that? How about the sirens we can now hear getting closer? Does that add any context?

    Criminal B: Well, yes it does. But it's always good to be sure.

    Criminal A: Wonderful. Glad we sorted that out. See you in ten to fifteen.

    Yeah. I like contronyms too.

    1. Ha! I wonder if the Department of Justice keeps records on the number of criminals caught due to contronymic ambiguities.