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 If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left?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

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
iStock.com/Dirima

The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

Can You Guess the Meaning of These Dothraki Words?

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