The funny thing about the English language is that it keeps you on your toes. Its pronunciation is unpredictable to put it mildly, and at times, some words seem to fight over a single definition, even when they denote the exact opposite concept. Welcome to the absurdity that is the English language.
A contronym is a word that has two contradictory meanings. For example, if the word ‘open’ were a contronym, it would both mean ‘to open’ and ‘to close.’ Sounds crazy? Well, it’s not. In fact, the English language has several words that are contronyms, or “auto-antonyms.”
If someone says that your jokes are hysterical they probably mean they’re very funny. But if something or someone is hysterical, bad news. They probably mean something is frightening or plain frantic and crazy.
If you dust the table, do you remove the dust from it or do you cover it with it? It ultimately depends on your goal. The same applies with strawberries. You might dust them with sugar or any other sweet substance, or dust them as a way of removing dirt and, well, dust.
If you’re nervy you’re either very courageous or very volatile and likely to lack nerve. Here are some examples to make this difference clear:
“You’re nervy to show up after what you did!”
“He’s nervy whenever he has to talk in front of a large audience.”
When you cleave onto something, you cling tight to it, or join it. As in:
“The homeless baby, frightened of the pedestrians, cleaved to his mother.”
But cleave also has the meaning of splitting up through cutting something in half or in more pieces. So for example, you can cleave open a piece of wood or meat.
When you strike something you hit it. But in baseball, a strike is a miss. So yes, in this world, on this planet, strike means both hit and miss.
You can overlook a team of scientists or you can overlook your team’s mistake’s. The second one might be a problem, with the result of them doing their own thing and missing your deadlines. Overlook can mean either monitor/supervise or a failure to notice something.
To Sanction or Not?
If a government sanctions a law, they either approve it or boycott it. To sanction is to penalize or punish a person, organization, or even country as a way of deterring a behavior or action in the future. But a government can also approve, endorse or ‘OK’ a law or project if it’s a good one.
Off it goes – or is it On?
If the alarm goes off, it actually means that it is activated, triggering the alarm sound. So in this sense, ‘off’ means the alarm goes on.
Perhaps the most confusing contronyms or auto-antonyms are verbs because the action they’re supposed to perform is contradicted.
Take ‘to peruse’ as an example. You can peruse an email as a way of reading very carefully what’s being said or you can peruse a magazine casually and without much focus or attention to detail, just skimming through it.
For more information on contronyms check this great list by The Daily Writing Tips.
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