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Many people -native speakers and learners alike -decry English as being illogical. But some other words are just as frustrating: Contronyms. It is a word that is its opposite -like ‘fast’, which can refer both to moving very quickly and to staying put.

Contronyms are also known as Janus words, antagonyms, or auto-antonyms. Originally, the term contronym was coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960. A contronym is a curious phenomenon in language, a word with two opposite meanings, and the meaning depends on the context. A contronym is both a homograph and an antonym. A homograph is a word that has the same written form but has a different meaning. For example, agape means both love and wide open.

Many contronyms developed their contradictory meanings through a process of semantic broadening; that is, a word that has a more specific meaning gains a broader and more general meaning later on in its life. Peruse is a good example of this. The inverse also happens: a word that begins life with a broad meaning gains several more specific meanings that develop in parallel to each other, but in a way that results in two contradictory and later meanings. Sanction is one such word. When it entered English, it referred to an oath. Over time, it came to refer to something that would compel someone or something to moral behaviour (as an oath might); later, it gained the two contradictory senses that refer to approval and economic disapproval—both of which might compel a person or a country to behave better.

Some contronyms come from different meanings between two dialects. In British English, you might say ‘to table a bill’, which means ‘to put it up for debate’ while in American English one might say, ‘to remove it from debate’.

    • Apology: A statement of contrition for action, or a defence of one
    • Aught: All, or nothing
    • Bill: A payment, or an invoice for payment
    • Bolt: To secure, or to flee
    • Bound: Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement
    • Buckle: To connect, or to break or collapse
    • Cleave: To adhere, or to separate
    • Clip: To fasten, or detach
    • Consult: To offer advice, or to obtain it
    • Continue: To keep doing an action, or to suspend an action
    • Custom: A common practice, or a special treatment
    • Dike: A wall to prevent flooding or a ditch
    • Discursive: Moving in an orderly fashion among topics, or proceeding aimlessly in a discussion
    • Dollop: A large amount (British English), or a small amount
    • Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them
    • Enjoin: To impose, or to prohibit
    • Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable
    • Fine: Excellent, or acceptable or good enough
    • Finished: Completed, or ended or destroyed
    • First degree: Most severe in the case of a murder charge, or least severe about a burn
    • Fix: To repair, or to castrate
    • Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat
    • Garnish: To furnish, as with food preparation, or to take away, as with wages
    • Give out: To provide, or to stop because of a lack of supply
    • Go: To proceed or succeed, or to weaken or fail
    • Grade: A degree of slope, or a horizontal line or position
    • Handicap: An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement
    • Help: To assist, or to prevent or (in negative constructions) restrain
    • Hold up: To support, or to impede
    • Lease: To offer property for rent, or to hold such property
    • Left: Remained, or departed
    • Let: Allowed, or hindered
    • Liege: A feudal lord, or a vassal
    • Literally: Actually, or virtually
    • Mean: Average or stingy, or excellent
    • Model: An exemplar, or a copy
    • Off: Deactivated, or activated, as an alarm
    • Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, about lights
    • Out of: Outside, or inside, as in working out of a specific office
    • Overlook: To supervise, or neglect
    • Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee
    • Peer: A person of the nobility, or an equal
    • Presently: Now, or soon
    • Put out: Extinguish, or generate
    • Puzzle: A problem, or to solve one
    • Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part
    • Quiddity: Essence, or a trifling point of contention
    • Quite: Rather (as a qualifying modifier), or completely
    • Ravel: To entangle, or to disentangle
    • Refrain: To desist from doing something, or to repeat
    • Rent: To purchase the use of something, or to sell the use
    • Rock: An immobile mass of stone or figuratively similar phenomenon, or a shaking or unsettling movement or action
    • Sanction: To approve, or to boycott
    • Sanguine: Confidently cheerful, or bloodthirsty
    • Scan: To peruse, or to glance
    • Screen: To present, or to conceal
    • Seed: To sow seeds, or to shed or remove them
    • Shop: To patronize a business to purchase something, or to sell something
    • Skin: To cover, or to remove
    • Skinned: Covered with skin, or with the skin removed
    • Splice: To join, or to separate
    • Stakeholder: One who has a stake in an enterprise, or a bystander who holds the stake for those placing a bet
    • Strike: To hit, or to miss in an attempt to hit
    • Table: To propose (in British English), or to set aside
    • Temper: To soften, or to strengthen
    • Throw out: To dispose of, or to present for consideration
    • Transparent: Invisible, or obvious
    • Trim: To decorate, or to remove excess from
    • Trip: A journey, or a stumble
    • Unbending: Rigid, or relaxing
    • Variety: A particular type, or many types
    • Wear: To endure, or to deteriorate
    • Weather: To withstand, or to wear away
    • Wind up: To end, or to start up
    • With: Alongside, or against
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δάσκαλος (dáskalos) means the teacher in Greek. Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature since 2006. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring to various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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