May 062013

Mental Floss posted a list of “contronyms” or “self-antonyms,” namely words that mean their own opposite. Here are a few of my favorites:

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.’

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 If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left?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

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.

Another strange category of words that I love seem to be called “autoholonyms.” Basically, these are words which refer to both the species and the genus. Here are some examples:

  • “Cow” can be mean just female bovines or all bovines.
  • “Day” can mean a 24 hour period or just the light portions thereof.
  • “Man” can refer to all humans (contrast: animals) or just male humans (contrast: woman) or just adult male humans (contrast: boy).

Can you think of other common words that fit that pattern? I want to know more!

  • Michael A. Slivka

    I always disliked “moot”, as in a moot point….it can mean disputed or debatable (worthy of discussion), or conversely, deprived of practical significance (thus, not worthy of discussion). I avoid it like the plague, unless I wish to obfuscate.

    • Jonathan Townley

      I just go with “moo point” like Joey Tribbiani from Friends. As he says, “It’s like a cow’s opinion. It just doesn’t matter. It’s moo.” But now I’m confused about whether he’s talking about a female cow or any old cow…

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