25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

Images: iStock
Images: iStock

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. 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 If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left?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.)

4. 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.

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

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

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

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

12. 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).

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

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

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

20. 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.”

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

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

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

Merriam-Webster Just Added Hundreds of New Words to the Dictionary—Here Are 25 of Them

iStock.com/xxz114
iStock.com/xxz114

The editors of Merriam-Webster's dictionary know better than most people how quickly language evolves. In April 2019 alone, they added more than 640 words to the dictionary, from old terms that have developed new meanings to words that are products of the digital age.

Entertainment fans will recognize a few of the new words on Merriam-Webster's list: Buzzy (generating speculation or attention), bottle episode (an episode of a television series confined to one setting), and EGOT (winning an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony) have all received the dictionary's stamp of approval.

Some terms reflect the rise of digital devices in our everyday lives, such as unplug and screen time. Other words have been around for centuries, but started appearing in new contexts in recent years. According to Merriam-Webster, snowflake can now mean “someone who is overly sensitive," purple can describe an area split between Democrat and Republican voters, and Goldilocks can mean “an area of planetary orbit in which temperatures are neither too hot nor too cold to support life."

You can read 25 of the new words below. And for even more recent additions to the dictionary, check out Merriam-Webster's list from last September.

  1. Bioabsorbable

  1. Bottle episode

  1. Bottom surgery

  1. Buzzy

  1. EGOT

  1. Garbage time

  1. Gender nonconforming

  1. Geosmin

  1. Gig economy

  1. Go-cup

  1. Goldilocks

  1. On-brand

  1. Page view

  1. Peak

  1. Purple

  1. Vulture capitalism

  1. Qubit

  1. Salutogenesis

  1. Screen time

  1. Snowflake

  1. Stan

  1. Tailwind

  1. Top surgery

  1. Traumatology

  1. Unplug

15 Ripsniptious Faux-Educated Words of the 19th Century

London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images
London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images

In his 1859 Dictionary of Modern Slang, John Camden Hotten discussed a recent craze for long, fancy-sounding made-up words. These drew, loosely and creatively, on the prefixes and suffixes of educated big words to get their point across. “Nothing pleases an ignorant person,” he writes, “more than a high-sounding term ‘full of fury.’ How melodious and drum-like are those vulgar coruscations … what a ‘pull’ the sharp-nosed lodging-house keeper thinks she has over her victims if she can but hurl such testimonies of a liberal education at them when they are disputing her charges, and threatening to ABSQUATULATE!”

Though an educated person could sneer at the "vulgar" corruption of Latin-inspired word formation rules, few could deny their delicious mouth-feel, the genius rhythm with which they rolled off the tongue. Most of the terms came and went in the way that slang does, but a few were so melodious and apt that they became a part of our permanent vocabulary. Here are 15 of the most ripsniptious faux-educated words of the period.

1. Absquatulate

This word, popular in the 1830s, meant to make off with something. It vaguely calls up abscond, but in a longer and more complicated way. There was also an alternate term absquatualize and the noun abscotchalater, meaning thief.

2. Rambunctious

This familiar term also emerged in the U.S. around 1830 and was probably formed off the earlier rumbustious.

3. Bloviate

Bloviate, a combination of blow and orate, goes back to the 1850s. It was widely popularized in the early 1900s by President Warren G. Harding, who was known for his long, windy speeches.

4. Discombobulated

This word for a feeling of uncomfortable confusion started in the 1820s as discombobberate. There was also a noun conbobberation, used to refer to some kind of disturbance.

5. Explaterate

The –ate suffix was a particular favorite in these words. Explaterate, a bit like explain and a bit like prattle, meant talk on and on in the 1830s.

6. Teetotaciously

A much more forceful and enjoyable way to say "totally."

7. Exflunctify

"To drain" or "wear out." An activity could exfluncticate you and leave you worn out or exflunctified—or even worse, teetotaciously exflunctified.

8. Obflisticate

Obliterate is a perfectly fine word of proper standing, but its substitute obflisticate somehow makes the obliteration seem more complete.

9. Ripsniptious

Snappy, smart, heart-filling and grand. “Why, don’t you look right ripsniptious today!”

10. Bodaciously

Our modern sense of bodacious as "excellent" didn’t come about until the 1970s, but in the 1830s, bodaciously was used as an exaggerated way to say bodily. If you weren’t careful out there in the wilderness, you could get “bodaciously chewed up by a grizzly bear.”

11. Discumgalligumfricated

Louise Pound, founder of the journal American Speech, recorded this glorious creation, meaning “greatly astonished but pleased,” in her notes on the terms used by her students at the University of Nebraska in the early 1900s.

12. Ramsasspatorious

This word for "excited, anxious, impatient" makes you feel all three at the same time.

13. Slantingdicular

If something can be perpendicular, why not slantingdicular (also written as slantindicular)? This one, first seen in the 1840s, deserves a comeback.

14. Dedodgement

Old dialect descriptions note this as a Kentucky term for "exit."

15. Explicitrize

H.L. Menken’s The American Language records explicitrize as a word for "censure."

This list was first published in 2015.

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