Fun with Contronyms

I've recently become obsessed with contronyms, so much so that I've picked it to be my theme for the Blogging from A to Z challenge. Before the challenge starts, I thought I'd share some of what I've learned about them.

The simple definition for contronym is a word with multiple meanings that are the opposite of each other. The intended meaning is usually made clear by the context of the sentence.
 
To throw some fancier words around, a contronym is a word that has a homograph that is also its antonym. Homographs are words with the same spelling but different meanings, and antonyms are words with opposite meanings; so with a controym, you get two semantic occurrences for the price of one.
 
Jack Herring coined the phrase contronym in 1962, although two years before, Joseph T. Shipley named the same phenomenon auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), which means the word is a self-antonym.  
 
Janus and contronymsAnother common term for these quirky words is Janus words. Janus was the Roman god of beginnings and endings and is usually shown having two faces - one looking to the future and one to the past. Since Janus is always looking in opposite directions at the same time, his name really fits these words that have opposite meanings.
 
Other terms for these types of words are antagonym, enantiodrome, antilogy, and sometimes contranym is used as an alternate spelling for contronym.  Since contronym is the first term I learned for these fun words, that's the one I'm going to use.
 
At first I thought English was the only language weird enough to do something so ridiculous as have the same word mean two completely opposite things (and then come up with several different terms to describe the illogical phenomenon!), but wikipedia indicates several other languages participate in this confusing practice. You can read more details here.
 
A common example of a contronym is bolt which can mean to secure (bolt the shelf to the wall) or to run away (the horse bolted from the barn). And anyone who read Amelia Bedelia as kid knows how confusing a contronym can be from the infamous dusting scene, since dust can mean to remove fine particles (dust the furniture) or add fine particles (dust sugar on the cake). 
 
Throughout the month of April, I'll present alphabetical examples of contronyms for the A to Z challenge, so I hope you'll stop by to see how weird and wonderful our language can be.
 
Have you heard of contronyms before? How about any of the other terms used for the phenomenon? Are you ready for the start of the A to Z challenge?

Comments

Ida Chiavaro's picture

Hi Jocelyn, I enjoyed your theme so much, I'm about to give a short talk to some students learning English. I've decided you're 'my go to' contronym source now.

Jocelyn Rish's picture

Very cool! I imagine the students will start banging their heads against their desks when they learn about how crazy English is. :-)

xiaojun's picture

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