Words that contradict themselves

Have you ever heard of auto antonyms? They are words that contradict themselves. Also known as contronyms, or words with contradictory meanings. No wonder non-native speakers complain that English is a hard language to learn. It’s not just the spelling!

I had a lot of nerdish fun putting together this list of contronyms. Can you think of any more? Please add to it in the comments section if you think of any that I’ve missed…

1. Left – can mean either remaining (he was left behind) or gone (she left the room).

2. Off – can mean either deactivated (turn off the light) or activated (the alarm went off).

3. Sanction – this can mean to impose a penalty (they imposed economic sanctions) or to give official approval to something (it was sanctioned by the court).

4. Overlook – to supervise someone (overlook the new employee), or to neglect something (the task was overlooked).

5. Dust – to add fine particles (dusted the crops with pesticide) or to remove them (dusted the furniture).

6. Bolt – to secure or lock something (bolt the door), or to run away (the horse bolted).

7. Clip – can mean to fasten (the papers were held together with a clip) or to remove (her hair was clipped off).

8. Fast – can mean to move quickly (he was a fast runner) or to not move at all (it was held fast).

9. Seed – can mean to add seeds (seeding a lawn) or to remove them (seeding a piece of fruit).

10. Screen – to hide from view (the balcony was screened by plants) or to display prominently (screening a film).

11. Buckle – to pull together (she buckled the seat belt) or fall apart (his knees buckled under him).

12. Pit – a hole (a pit in the ground) or a solid centre (a cherry pit).

Photo credit: Truthout.org / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

10 comments

  1. Seems to be written for me! Yes, contronyms add to the challenge for non native speakers. I think of my early days when I heard once a woman on the beach commenting on a much younger woman wearing an adorable bikini: “She could cover some skin.” But I had also learned that “peler une pomme” is to skin an apple.
    Adding some coverage and removing some, too.
    Does it count as a contronym? Back to the expert!

    • That’s a good one, thanks! Does French have confusing word usage like English? I don’t think Greek does. I suspect English is rather unique as far as this goes!

  2. There are some examples from antique English as well. Two that I can immediately recall are:
    “cleave” – old usage = to pack together or to meld
    – contemporary usage = to cut apart

    “condescend” – old usage = to speak at a “common man’s” level in the spirit of not being arrogant or affectedly superior.
    – contemporary usage = to patronise or look/talk down on

    Steven Fernandez

  3. This is why language is amazing 🙂 Thanks for the post! I will think of it when I teach antonyms and synonyms. So glad to know there is a name for contradictory words!

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