Tag Archives: contronyms

‘Bleaching’ the vibrancy out of words

English has a whole category of words called “contronyms” — words that have opposing definitions, such as “cleave” meaning both join and cut apart,”sanction” meaning both allow and prohibit, and, to the consternation of many of us, “literally” meaning both actually and figuratively. (See more contronyms at Mental Floss and Daily Writing Tips.)

But English also has descriptive phrases that consist of seemingly opposite adverbs + adjectives, such as:

  • This cake is awfully good.
  • Her sister is terribly nice.
  • This hugely insignificant change won’t affect anything.
  • These immensely small subatomic particles were discovered only recently.
  • The blue shirt is a little big on you.
  • That couch the Bundys bought at the flea market is pretty ugly.
"Disaster Cake" by An Italian Cooking in the Midwest.

Awfully good or just awful? “Disaster Cake” by An Italian Cooking in the Midwest.

I’m thinking here about phrases used without irony, sarcasm or poetic license. I wondered whether this phenomenon has a name, so I went digging (figuratively) to find out. I looked in books, I looked online, I asked around. Continue reading

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Contronyms: Literally having opposite meanings

literallyVociferous hue and cry arose recently over the inclusion of the figurative meaning of “literally” (that is, using it to mean “figuratively” instead of “actually”) in the dictionary. The history of the word’s usage and the purpose of a dictionary have been well discussed, so here I want to talk about the phenomenon of a word having two meanings that are opposites of each other.

These words are called “contronyms” (also “auto-antonyms” or “Janus words,” after the two-faced Roman god) and they’re more common in English than you might think. Here are a few examples:

Cleave can mean “to cut apart” or “to cling together.”

Impregnable can mean “able to be impregnated” or “unable to be breached.” (The tricky “im-/in-” prefix leads to confusion over the word “inflammable,” which means not “non-flammable” but instead “highly flammable.”)

Rent and lease can each mean either to allow someone to use something (such as a residence, vehicle or piece of equipment) for money without selling it, or to pay money to use something without buying it.

Sanction can mean “to allow” or “to restrict.”

Strike can mean “to hit,” or, in baseball, “to not hit.”

And, of course, literally can mean both “actually” and “figuratively.” No one can accuse English of making sense.

(Daily Writing Tips offers a much longer list if you want to see more contronyms.)