Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Most people understand the concept of synonyms. This is when you have words with similar meanings, like “happy” and “cheerful.” Most people also understand the concept of antonyms. This is when you have words with opposite meanings, like “yes” and “no.” What happens, then, when you have the same word that is effectively its own opposite? That’s when you come across what is known as a contronym.

Interestingly enough, there are actually several terms that refer to the exact same concept as a contronym. These include contranym, auto-antonym, self-antonym, autantonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, and antilogy. It’s also called a Janus word, named after the Roman god with two faces on the same head.

The fundamental idea here is that you are actually getting two different words that happen to be spelled exactly the same way, but have entirely opposite meanings. This is quite different from when you have words like poisonous and venomous that may be related but have different meanings.

The best way to understand contronyms is to look at a series of examples. English is a very strange language indeed.

  • Bolt: To secure, as in he bolted the door to the frame; to leave quickly, as in he bolted out the door.
  • Clip: To hold together, as in he clipped together the two forms; to cut or detach, as in he clipped the corner of every page.
  • Custom: The normal or common practice, as in the custom of eating turkey on Thanksgiving; something unique, as in a custom paint job on a Ferrari.
  • Dust: To add tiny particles, as in the explosion dusted the room in carbon; to remove the dust, as in the housekeeper dusted the table.
  • Garnish: To add or adorn, as in he garnished the plate with a slice of orange; to remove, as in they garnished his wages.
  • Left: To depart, as in Elvis has left the building; to remain, as in he had three apples left in the bowl.
  • Literally: In actuality, as in he literally had 10 minutes to catch the train; figuratively, as in he was literally starving after skipping breakfast.
  • Model: A scale representation, as in a model airplane; an exceptional example, as in a model citizen.
  • Off: To deactivate, as in he turned the lights off; to activate, as in the fire alarm went off.
  • Overlook: To watch over, as in the supervisor overlooked the entire operation; to miss seeing, as in he overlooked the fatal flaw in the scheme.
  • Rent: To pay for temporary use, as in he rented a movie to watch; to charge for temporary use, as in he rented out the spare room for $100 a night.
  • Resign: To quit, as in he resigned from his job; to extend an agreement, as in he resigned with the team for three more years.
  • Screen: To display or show, as in they screened the movie at Cannes; to block, as in Weber screened Luongo’s vision.
  • Skinned: To cover, as in a bumpy-skinned cantaloupe; to remove the skin, as in he skinned the trapped animal.
  • Seed: To plant seeds, as in he seeded the lawn; to remove the seeds, as in he seeded the watermelon.
  • Variety: One type, as in he only had one variety of fish available; many types, as in he offered a variety of monthly plans.
  • Weather: To wear away, as in the storms weathered away the face of the statue; to return safely, as in the sailors safely weathered the storm.
  • Wicked: Evil or bad, as in the wicked witch of the west; good or impressive, as in the skater had a wicked run.

Contronyms are one of many reasons why context is so important. Without context, the actual meaning can be very ambiguous, opening up a broad range of possible interpretations. Be careful not only with what words that you choose, but also how you use them in relation to other words.