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25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

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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.’
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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’ + videre ‘to see.’) “Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore.’
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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 If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left?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.)
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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.
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5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.
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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).
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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?
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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.”
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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.
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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.
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11. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in "to turn off," but also ‘activated,’ as in "The alarm went off."
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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.”
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13. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or ‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).
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14. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t help doing something, when it means ‘prevent.’
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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.
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16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.
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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.)
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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.
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19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”
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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.”
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21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”
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22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”
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23. Bitch, as reader Shawn Ravenfire pointed out, can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.
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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.
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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.

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The Proper Names of 17 Bodily Functions
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Ask an anatomist, and they’ll be able to tell you that your kneecap is really your patella. Your armpit is your axilla and the little groove above your top lip is your philtrum. The little flap of cartilage the covers the hole in your ear? That’s your tragus, named after the Greek word for a billy goat—because the tuft of hair that grows on it resembles a goat’s beard (apparently).

But if that’s what’s on the outside, what about what happens on the inside? Well, it turns out the English language has quite a rich collection of formal, medical, and old fashioned words for all of the reflexes and reactions that our bodies naturally carry out without a second thought from us. So the next time you’re stretching as you get out of bed, or you interrupt an important meeting with a ructus or a borborygmus, you’ll at least have the perfect word for it.

1. BORBORYGMI

Derived originally from an onomatopoeic Greek word, a borborygmus is a rumbling in the stomach or bowels. Borborygmi are produced as the contents of the intestines are pushed along by waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis, although trapped gas from digested food or swallowed air can also cause your borborygmi to become noisier than normal. Bonus fact: Queasy stomach rumbles were called wambles in Tudor English, and you’d be wamble-cropped if you weren’t feeling well.

2. CACHINNATION

A study in 2013 found that when people laugh, it's only because they've found something funny about 20 percent of the time. The rest of time, we use laughter as a means of signaling things like agreement, affection, ease, and nostalgia that we evolved long before communication through language was possible. And a fit of spontaneous, uproarious, unrestrained laughter is called cachinnation.

3. CICATRIZATION

Cicatrization is the formation of a cicatrix, or a scar. More generally, it refers to any of the healing and sealing processes that help a wound to mend, including the formation of a scab.

4. DEGLUTITION

Deglutition is the proper word for the action of swallowing. It’s an etymological cousin of words like glut, glutton, and gullet.

5. DIAPHORESIS

Sweating has been known by a whole host of (ironically quite beautiful) words in history, including the likes of resudation, sudorification, and diaphoresis, a 17th century word that literally means “to carry through.” Nowadays, "diaphoresis" is rarely encountered outside of purely medical contexts, where it’s used as an older or more formal name for excessive perspiration—a condition better known as hyperhidrosis.

6. ERUCTATION

As well as being another word for a volcanic eruption, eructation is the medical name for burping, while the burp itself is called a ructus. For what it’s worth, the Romans knew excessive or unstoppable belching as ructabundus (although sadly that word has yet to catch on in English).

7. FLATUS

So if a ructus is a burp, no prizes for guessing that a flatus goes the other way. Technically though, flatus is just the build up of gas in the stomach or bowels, not the actual expulsion of it. For that, why not try using an old Tudor English word for a fart—ventosity.

8. HORRIPILATION

Horripilation literally means “bristled hairs,” and is the proper name for what you probably know as gooseflesh or goose bumps. Another name for the same thing is piloerection, although that also includes the phenomenon of animals raising their hair or fur (or, in the case of porcupines, their quills) when they’re stressed or under attack.

9. LACHRYMATION

Lachrymation is the proper name for shedding tears, which are produced in the lachrymal glands above the outer edges of the eyes and are stored in a lachrymal sac on either side of the bridge of the nose. And if you want to get really technical, there are three different types of tears: basal tears, which are constantly produced to keep the surface of the eyes moist; reflex tears, which are the extra tears produced when something enters or irritates the eye; and psychic tears, which are those produced as a response to a mental or emotional stimulus.

10. MASTICATION

Mastication is the proper name for chewing. Etymologically, it’s descended from a Greek word literally meaning “to gnash your teeth,” and is related both to mandible and papier-mâché (which is literally “chewed paper” in French).

11. NICTITATION

Nictitation is the proper name for blinking or winking, and comes from an old pre-Latin word meaning “to incline or bend together,” just as the eyelids do. That twitching muscle in your eyelid after you’ve strained your eyes? That’s a blepharospasm.

12. OBDORMITION

Obdormition is the proper name for sleeping, but it’s usually only used in reference to the feeling of numbness, caused by pressure on a nerve, when a limb or muscle “falls asleep.” Pins and needles, incidentally, is properly called paraesthesia.

13. PANDICULATION

Pandiculation is essentially a catchall term for all those things you do when you’re tired or just waking up, like yawning, stretching your arms and legs, and cracking your joints. Monday morning, in other words.

14. RHINORRHOEA

When your nose runs, that’s rhinorrhoea. Except when you’re having a nosebleed, which is called epistaxis.

15. SINGULTUS

In Latin, singultus was speech interrupted by sobbing, or an inability to speak caused by crying. Based on this, English borrowed the word singult in the 16th century for a single sob, while in the sense of something spasmodically interrupting your speech, and singultus came to be used as a more formal name for hiccups.

16. STERNUTATION

A sneeze or a sneezing fit is properly called a sternutation. Anything described as sternutatory causes sneezing.

17. TUSSICATION

Tussis is the Latin word for “cough.” It’s the origin of both tussication, a formal word for coughing, and pertussis, the medical name for whooping cough.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 118th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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