Word of the Month: Contronym

David Zapatka

Reader and dear friend Ellen Engel suggested I look at Mental Floss’ article on contronyms. I subscribed to Mental Floss for years and enjoyed the magazine. Today, you can only read it online, as its print version has been discontinued.

Contronym noun con·​tro·​nym | ˈkän-trə-ˌnim variant – contranym: a word having two meanings that contradict one another.

Origin and Etymology–Blend of English contra- and -onym, on the pattern of synonym and antonym.

First Used–1962

Contronym used in a sentence. An auto-antonym, also called a contronym, is a word with multiple meanings (senses) of which one is the reverse of another.

Examples of contronyms:

Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust, are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn, you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato, you remove them.

Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he likes to get stoned).

Off means “deactivated,” as in to turn off, but also “activated,” as in the alarm went off.

Weather can mean “to withstand or come safely through” (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean “to be worn away” (the rock was weathered).

Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

Go means “to proceed” but also “give out or fail.” “This car could really go until it started to go.”

Hold up can mean “to support” or “to hinder.” “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

Out can mean “visible” or “invisible.” For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

Out of means “outside” or “inside.” “I hardly get out of the house, because I work out of my home.”

Left can mean either “remaining” or “departed.” “If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left?” (The gentlemen have left, and the ladies are left.)

Sanction can mean “give official permission or approval for (an action)” or conversely, “impose a penalty on.”

Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee means “supervise.” Overlook means the opposite: “to fail to see or observe.”

Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Trim can mean “to prepare, make ready.” If you’re trimming the tree, are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

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