At one point or another English learners start noticing words that are unusual in that they have two completely opposite meanings. For example, to bolt something can mean to fasten or to secure, but in a different context the same verb can mean to move suddenly and quickly.

Words that convey two contradictory notions are known as contronyms, but I love their alternative name: Janus words. Janus was the Roman god of gates and beginnings (the month of January is named after him), visually represented with two faces looking in two opposite directions at the same time.

Contronyms are just like that. Let’s look at a few typical examples:

to dust 

  1. to remove dust (Today I’m finally going to dust the living room.)
  2. to sprinkle with a powder (Dust the cake with powdered sugar.)

to overlook

  1. to not notice, fail to see something (I overlooked some of his spelling mistakes.)
  2. to supervise, look after (As a manager, he overlooks the whole team.)

to sanction

  1. to approve, authorise, grant approval (The government has sanctioned the new economic policy.)
  2. to punish, penalise (Unacceptable behaviour will be sanctioned.)

to screen

  1. to conceal, cover, hide (His house is completely screened by that new building.)
  2. to show, broadcast (I can’t wait for that new show to be screened.)

to seed

  1. to sow, plant (We are going to seed the lawn tomorrow.)
  2. to remove seed (from a fruit or vegetable) (Please seed the tomatoes.)

to weather

  1. to wear away by long exposure to the atmosphere (Our patio furniture has weathered and lost its original colour.)
  2. to endure, withstand (We managed to weather the latest crisis.)

Contronyms tend to be verbs, but there are also examples such as these:

bound (adj.)

  1. tied, fastened, confined (Bound in chains, the prisoner could not escape.)
  2. intending to go; ready (The plane is bound for London.)

fast (adj. / adv.)

  1. quick (Please don’t drive too fast.)
  2. in a firmly fixed way (He holds fast to his beliefs.)

fine (adj.)

  1. of superior quality, expensive; delicate (Fine teas can be quite expensive.)
  2. nothing special (How was the pizza? -Fine. I’ve had better.)

Polysemy, i.e. more than one meaning of a word or phrase, is quite a regular feature of natural language, and it just so happens that sometimes some of those meanings end up being mutually contradictory. In some cases, this phenomenon can be traced back to two originally different words that now simply share the same spelling and pronunciation in modern English. In other cases, the difference may be due to separate regional developments, with one meaning predominant in, say British English, and a different one in American English.

Can you think of more examples of contronyms? Do share them in the comments section below!


Contronyms: A Janus Personality (newspaper article)

Contronyms Are ‘Literally’ The Best (audio & reading adapted for ESL students)

The Contronym Conundrum (podcast episode)

3 Replies to “Contronyms”

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