What’s what and when’s when

Contronyms: In Self-Opposition

You’re probably familiar with the terms ‘antonym’ (a word that means the opposite of another word, e.g. ‘hot’ and ‘cold’) and ‘synonym’ (a word that has a similar meaning to another, e.g. ‘philanthropic’ and ‘benevolent’); but how about the term ‘contronym’?

Also known as an auto-antonym, a contronym (or contranym) is a category of word with different meanings which, depending on the context, can seem contradictory. This makes contronyms a kind of homograph – words that are spelled the same but not necessarily pronounced the same, and have different meanings (if you haven’t read our full post about homophones and homographs, check it out here).
Example: An acquaintance of mine with a plumbing business in Plymouth was explaining to a customer how to ‘plumb-in a kitchen’.  The customer’s 12 year old son appeared 10 minutes later out of breath saying i have searched everywhere and there are no plumbs in the kitchen.

As you read through this list, see if you can work out the contradictory meanings before reading the explanations for each word. Although they are by no means obscure, they can be tricky to work out because your brain naturally clings on to one meaning.

Before – can refer to a point in time in the future or in the past (we have our lives before us like our parents did before us)

Bolt – to secure in place (bolt it down) or to flee (the rabbit bolted)

Buckle – to fasten or secure (a seatbelt) or to collapse (under pressure)

Downhill – progressively easier (it’s downhill from here) or progressively worse (his condition has gone downhill)

Dust – to add dust to (a cake) or to remove dust from (furniture)

Fast – to move or do quickly (she runs fast) or to not move at all (to hold fast)

Fight with – can either mean to fight on the same side as someone, or in disagreement with them (as he fought with the bear, his friends came to fight with him)

Leave/Left – either to depart or to remain (they left when they saw what was left of the food)

Original – can be an authentic example (an original Picasso) or something fresh and unusual (an original idea)

Overlook – to manage or supervise (overlook the team) or fail to notice (overlook a problem)

Put out – to extinguish (a fire) or to produce (items from a factory)

Shelled – having a shell (a tortoise) or having had its shell removed (a nut) – similar to ‘skinned’, ‘stoned’ and ‘pitted’

Variety – can refer to a single type (a variety of apple) or many types (a variety of snacks)

English isn’t the only language to feature contronyms: In French, the word ‘hôte’ can mean either ‘host’ or ‘guest’; the Italian word ‘ciao’ is used to say both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’; and the Swahili verb ‘kutoa’ can mean either ‘to add’ or ‘to remove’.

You might be wondering what the point is of knowing about these words. You’ve spent a few minutes reading this article and it’s made you think a bit, but so what? Well, just pay attention to how you use these words, and make sure your intentions are clear.

For example, an instruction on a printer that says: “If the red light flashes, take the ink cartridge out and replace it” leaves the user unclear as to whether it’s the original ink cartridge or a new one that should be put back in.

Similarly, a report card that tells a parent “Simon is trying” could mean either that he works hard, or that he’s hard work!

Do you have any real-life examples where contronyms have caused confusion? If so, leave a comment to let us know.