Contronyms (another reason I love English)

ContronymsIt’s fascinating to me that in everyday English, the same word can have two meanings that are completely opposite. Even more fascinating is that, generally, people know exactly which meaning you intend simply from the context. I mean, they don’t have to think about it or wonder or ask for clarification; somehow it’s just obvious.

For example, if your boss tells you she is going to garnish your wages, you don’t stop to ask if she is going to add something to them, like a sprig of parsley. No, you immediately understand that she is going to subtract something from your regular paycheck.

Cleave is another such word. When a husband and wife cleave to each other, they stay together. When a butcher cleaves a pork roast, he chops it apart.

Even the little preposition with can have opposite meanings! If you say, “I fought with my brother,” do you mean that you fought against him or alongside him?

Interesting, no?

Words that can have opposite meanings are called contronyms. Just for fun, I’m listing a few here:

Common contronyms

1. Left (departed, or remaining)

All the editors left the room, so only the writer was left.

2. Dust (to remove fine particles, or to add them)

While she dusted her antique typewriter, he dusted the cupcakes with powdered sugar.

3. Fast (to keep from moving, or to move quickly)

I held the paper fast, so it wouldn’t move while I was writing so fast.

4. Bill (an invoice, or a payment)

When you receive a bill from LifeLines, you can pay it with a check, a credit card, or a straight-up hundred-dollar bill.

5. Bolt (to secure, or to flee)

Her boots were bolted to the floor, but she slipped out of them and bolted for the door.

6. Strike (to hit, or to miss)

When Casey’s bat failed to strike the ball, the ump called, “Strike three!”

7. Variety (one type, or many types)

There is such a variety of vegetables in my garden, I can’t choose which variety of tomatoes I like best!

8. Custom (a common practice, or personalized treatment)

It is my custom to write a custom response to each comment on the LifeLines blog.

Many more

You can find many more examples of contronyms at Mental FlossDaily Writing Tips, and other sources around the interweb. In many cases, you’ll find that you are so familiar with both meanings that you didn’t even realize they were opposites until you had to stop and think about it!


8 thoughts on “Contronyms (another reason I love English)”

  1. I wonder if any other language is as confusing as English. I know some students from Russia and Germany who speak 3-4 languages. They told me English was their most confusing.

  2. You remind me of a fun English Teacher! When I was bound for Mexico, I was bound to what I could say. On that trip, I tripped up on some of my words.

    I agree, for others where English is a second language , I’ve heard it can be confusing. However, I’ve also heard it’s one of the most beautiful languages because of all the many words/uses we have. I find it harder to describe things in Spanish as it seems English has much more adjectives. We also use many other languages within our English. The medical community has a language of its own & daily I find myself translating Latin to our patients.

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