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 If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left?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

Why Do We Call a Leg Cramp a Charley Horse?

iStock.com/Jan-Otto
iStock.com/Jan-Otto

If you’re unlucky enough to have experienced a charley horse—a painful muscle spasm or cramp in your leg—then you may have found yourself wondering what this nonsensical phrase even means. Who is this Charley character? Where did he come from? And what does he know about my pain?

Like the words flaky and jazz, this term likely entered the language from the baseball field. While the idiom’s etymology isn’t 100 percent certain, archived newspaper articles suggest it was coined by a baseball player in the 1880s. We just don’t know which player said it first, or why.

According to a January 1887 article in the Democrat and Chronicle, the phrase was well-known to baseball players at the time—but to the average person, charley horses were as enigmatic as “an Egyptian hieroglyphic.” That year, charley horses were mentioned in a slew of newspapers across America, and some attempted to tackle the phrase’s murky origin. “Nearly every sporting journal gives a different version as to how the term charley horse originated in baseball circles,” the Oakland Daily Evening Tribune reported at the time.

The likeliest tale, according to the paper, centered around John Wesley "Jack" Glasscock, a shortstop who at the time was playing for Indianapolis. At some point a few years earlier, the player had strained a tendon in his thigh during a game and afterwards went home to his farm, where his father looked after a lame old horse called a "Charley horse." When the senior Glasscock saw his son limping along, he reportedly exclaimed, “Why, John, my boy, what is the matter; you go just like the old Charley horse?” John supposedly shared the funny turn of phrase with his teammates, and from there it spread. Similar accounts were reported in other newspapers, but they were attributed to various other players.

Other reports say the phrase has nothing to do with a live animal, but rather the fact that an injured player, while running, resembles a rocking horse or a child riding astride a wooden hobby horse.

The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary by Paul Dickson details a few other theories. In two versions of the same basic tale, Orioles or Chicago Cubs players went to the races and bet on a horse named Charlie who "pulled up lame in the final stretch." The next day, a player pulled a tendon in his leg and was said to resemble “our old Charlie horse.”

Alternatively, its origin may relate to an old workhorse that was tasked with pulling a roller across the infield. “Often in the 1800s, old workhorses kept on the grounds of ballparks were called Charley. The movements of the injured, stiff-legged ballplayers were likened to the labored plodding of these old horses, and the injury itself eventually became known as a ‘charley’ or ‘charley horse,'" Tim Considine wrote in 1982's The Language of Sport.

It also appears that charley horse originally implied a much more serious injury—or perhaps there was a bit of hysteria surrounding a condition that seemed new and scary in the late 19th century. The Democrat and Chronicle described a charley horse as a “giving way of one of the small tendons of the leg” and said an injured baseball player might need an entire season to recover. Another article from 1887 said ballplayer George Van Haltren’s relatives were worried he would get a charley horse, “although they do not know what that is.” He was said to have been “very fortunate” because he had “not yet encountered the terrible charley horse.”

For comparison, Healthline.com now says charley horses “are generally treatable at home” by stretching, massaging, or icing the afflicted area, although the muscle pain can linger for up to a day in some cases. So there you have it. We may never know the exact etymology of the charley horse, but the next time you get a sharp pain in your leg, you can thank an old-timey ballplayer for making your struggle sound so silly.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

The Macabre Origins of 10 Death-Related Idioms

iStock.com/wwing
iStock.com/wwing

In 2016, Chapman University conducted a survey of 1511 Americans to gauge their concern over common fears, including crime, natural disasters, and clowns. Predictably, the notion of death was on the minds of many. Roughly 38 percent of respondents said that the idea of a loved one dying made them afraid or very afraid. Approximately 19 percent feared their own death.

That last statistic may speak less to fear of dying than our preference to simply not think about it. We often obscure or obfuscate our own mortality by ignoring it, joking about it, or cloaking it in a way that allows us to avoid confronting the reality that our bodies have expiration dates. For centuries, idioms have allowed us to dance around the topic, trading euphemisms for blunt language. Take a look at some of the more common expressions for death and their possible origins.

1. BUYING THE FARM

A scarecrow appears in a field
iStock.com/Smitt

A person who has ceased to be is sometimes said to have "bought the farm." This agricultural expression may have roots in the plight of military pilots in the 20th century. If a fighter jet crashed on a farm, the farm owner could theoretically sue the government for damages. In a roundabout way, the settlement might pay for the farmland, with the expired pilot having "bought" the property. Alternatively, the pilot's family might receive an insurance payment sufficient to pay off their farm mortgage. Another theory? The phrase stemmed from the idea of "the farm" as slang for a burial plot; "bought it" is also an older slang term for died.

2. DEAD AS A DOORNAIL

A door features a knocker and doornails
iStock.com/KenWiedemann

Why would anyone associate someone's health—or lack thereof—with carpentry? The earliest usage of someone being "dead as a doornail" dates to a 1350 translation of the anonymous 12th-century French poem Guillaume de Palerne. William Shakespeare used it in Henry VI, Part 2, written around 1591, and Charles Dickens in 1843's A Christmas Carol, writing that "Old Marley was as dead as a door nail," then going on to explain (via the narrator) that he wasn't quite sure why it wouldn't be "coffin nail" thanks to its status as "the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade." One possible explanation is that wooden doors were often secured with nails that were hammered through and then bent on the protruding side for added strength. Once this process, called "clenching," was performed, the nail was basically useless for any other purpose. The idiom may also refer to the effort involved in driving the nail through the door. Struck with blunt force by a hammer, the nail was effectively "dead" from the trauma.

3. CROSSING THE RAINBOW BRIDGE

A rainbow appears over the ocean
iStock.com/Damon_Moss

A forlorn announcement of a pet's passing sometimes includes mention of the beloved animal "crossing the rainbow bridge." While the phrase is common on social media, its origins date to the pre-Facebook 1980s. Three authors have all claimed to have written a poem using the language, which refers to a mythical connection between heaven and Earth. On the crossing, pet and owner are said to be reunited. The idea of a rainbow-colored crossing may have stemmed from Norse mythology and the Bifröst bridge, which connected Midgard and Asgard.

4. SIX FEET UNDER

A tombstone appears over a grave
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As idioms go, this one is rather pointed. To die is to often be buried six feet underground. But why six feet? Blame the plague. In 1665, when the illness swept England, London's Lord Mayor ordered that corpses be buried no less than six feet deep in an effort to help limit the spread of the pestilence that eventually took more than an estimated 100,000 lives. There is no such regulation today, and graves can be as shallow as four feet.

5. PUSHING UP THE DAISIES

A daisy is seen in a graveyard
iStock.com/tommy_martin

This gardening-related euphemism takes a pleasant visual (daisies) to soften the subject (the rotting corpse residing underneath). The earliest incarnation of the phrase may have been to "turn one's toes to the daisies." A version appears in the story "The Babes in the Wood," in Richard Harris Barham's Ingoldsby Legends folklore collection of the 1840s, which used the expression "be kind to those dear little folks/When our toes are turned up to the daisies." Another variation, "I shall very soon hide my name under some daisies," was used by Scottish author George MacDonald in 1866.

6. BITE THE DUST

A dusty surface is pictured
iStock.com/sbayram

As much as Queen may deserve credit for popularizing the phrase ("Another One Bites the Dust"), they didn't coin it. The idea of sudden death resulting in a body collapsing into dust has origins that date back far earlier. "Lick the dust" can be traced to Psalms 72 of the King James version of the Bible ("They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust"), which actually sounds quite a bit more menacing. Translator Tobias Smollett used the altered "bite" version in the French novel The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane, originally published by Alain-René Lesage between 1715 and 1735. It also appears in a 19th-century English translation of Homer's Iliad, though it's hard to ascertain whether the phrase should be attributed to Homer or to translator Samuel Butler.

7. KICK THE BUCKET

A bucket sits on top of a crate
iStock.com/mars58

Of all the verbal contortions to get around saying "this person has died," few are more ambiguous than "kick the bucket." One common—and very morbid—explanation is that a person committing suicide may opt to hang themselves by standing on a platform before kicking it away, creating tension on the rope around their neck. To achieve death, they have to literally kick the bucket. This presumes "bucket" was ever slang for a stool, or that it was the only handy stand-in for one. It's more likely the phrase stems from another definition of bucket. In 16th-century England, bucket also meant a yoke or frame from which to hang something. If an animal was being hung up for slaughter, it might kick the frame, or bucket, in an effort to free itself, or in a spasm after death.

8. SHUFFLING OFF THIS MORTAL COIL

A coil is seen in close-up
iStock.com/lionvision

This romanticized phrase is another of Shakespeare's contributions to the lexicon of death. In 1602's Hamlet, he wrote, "For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause." At the time, coile or coil meant fuss, making the phrase a reference to leaving behind mortal turmoil.

9. LAID OUT IN LAVENDER

Lavender is spread out on a blank surface
iStock.com/olindana

Another seemingly pleasant descriptor, to be "laid out in lavender" is to prepare a body for viewing or burial, presumably by using a pleasant smell to mask the foul odor of decomposition. The idiom takes a cue from "laid up in lavender," or the practice of storing clothes in lavender to keep them from being damaged by insects. The phrase denoting death may have first appeared in a 1926 story in the Syracuse Herald newspaper, with a book reviewer noting that a detective story featured a family "laid out in lavender."

10. SLEEPING WITH THE FISHES

A woman sleeps next to a fish
iStock.com/yulkapopkova

A staple of both mob stories and parodies of mob stories, to "sleep with the fishes" is to hint that a rival has been murdered and possibly tossed into a body of water. Luca Brasi famously met this fate in 1972's The Godfather. But the phrase can be dated back to 1836 and to German villagers who wanted to warn off a fly fisherman. As Edmund Spencer describes in Sketches of Germany and the Germans, the villagers threatened the man with violence, an act Spencer worded as a warning that "he would sleep with the fishes." And, yes, fish do sleep, though not in any conventional sense. Without eyelids to droop, they tend to relax their tails and enter a state of reduced arousal.

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