11 Contronyms You’ve Been Using Without Realizing It

There are four people at a dinner party. By midnight, two people had left. How many people are left at the party?

Left is just one of many words or expressions known as a contronymor contranym—a word that has two meanings that are opposite or nearly opposite. In this example, left means both "leave" (two people had left) and "remain" (How many people are left?), which are antonyms. An antonym is a word that is opposite in meaning to another.

Contronyms are also known as Janus words. Janus was an ancient Roman god with two faces that looked in opposite directions, so you can see how he came to be associated with contronyms. Another term for these words is auto-antonym, or a word that means the opposite of itself. Technical terms for this phenomenon are enantiosemy, enantionymy, or antilogy.

You're likely familiar with many of these contronyms, even if you don't realize it. So check out some of the most common ones, before you check out.

cleave

A classic example of a contronym is cleave. Cleave actually comes from two different Old English words, clēofan and cleofian, which is how it got these two opposite meanings.

 

  • cleave: to split, to separate
    Owen swung the axe down hard in order to cleave the log into two even pieces.

 

  • cleave: to adhere closely, to stick
    Young beaver pups cleave to their mother in the water until they are strong enough to swim on their own.

dust

Dust, when used as a verb, is a contronym.

 

  • dust: to wipe the dust from
    Every Saturday, he would dust the nicknacks on the bookshelves to keep them clean.

 

  • dust: to sprinkle with a powder or dust
    The baker liked to dust their pumpkin bread with just a sprinkle of cinnamon.

 

Dust off your grammar skills with this review of one of the most common homonyms to trip people up: their, there, and they're.

overlook

We recommend you don't overlook this next contronym.

 

  • overlook: to fail to notice, perceive, or consider
    I hadn't finished the last two homework questions, but I hoped my teacher would overlook it and give me full marks anyway.

 

  • overlook: to look after, oversee, or supervise
    The manager was required to personally overlook the transfer of valuable materials every evening. 

sanction

Will the government sanction sanctions? That's right, sanction is another common contronym.

 

  • sanction: to authorize, approve, or allow
    My parents wouldn't sanction video games in our home because they thought they were too violent.

 

  •  sanction: to penalize
    The school said they were going to sanction the students for arriving late to class.

weather

The word weather is a contronym, but only when used as a verb. We aren't talking about the noun meaning of this term, "the state of the atmosphere with respect to wind, temperature, etc."

 

  • weather: to expose to the weather, to disintegrate
    The paint on the house was chipped and weathered from the decades of rain and snow.

 

  • weather: to endure
    We weren't sure that we would be able to weather the storm if we didn't find shelter.

 

While we're talking about the weather, have you reviewed this maelstrom of a word list of weather words?

back up 

The expression back up has two meanings that are close, if not exact, antonyms.

 

  • back up: to support
    Ultimately, the scientists were unable to back up their claims with hard evidence.

 

  • back up: to retreat
    The zebras backed up when they spotted the alligators in the water.

fine

The adjective fine has the potential to lead to some real misunderstandings about just how excellent (or not) something is.

 

  • fine: of superior or best quality
    To prepare for the Queen's visit, the household staff cleaned the fine linens and polished the best silver.

 

  • fine (informal): satisfactorily, acceptably
    Sandra thought her performance was fine, but nothing special, so she was surprised when she won second place.

original

The adjective original, like the expression back up, is an example of a contronym with two definitions that are near-antonyms.

 

  • original: belonging to the beginning of something
    Despite being hundreds of years old, the painting was still in its original frame.

 

  • original: new, fresh, inventive
    While sitting in the bathtub, the inventor was struck with an original idea.

pitted

The contronym pitted often causes confusion at the grocery store.

 

  • pitted: having pits (in the sense of "mark or indent")
    The sailor's face was pitted and craggy from the wind and salt water.

 

  • pitted: having the pit removed (in the sense of "stone of a fruit")
    My mom reminded me to buy the pitted cherries, because she didn't want to take out the stones herself.

bound

Bound is an example of a contronym like cleave that has two different meanings because it actually has two different etymologies. The first meaning comes from the Old English bindan. The second meaning comes from the Old Norse būinn, "to get ready."

 

  • bound: tied, fastened or secured with a band or bond
    The Mountie rushed to save the woman who was bound to the railroad tracks.

 

  • bound: going or intending to go, destined (for)
    With all of their talents, the band was bound to be a success.

rent 

The verb rent is one of the clearest examples of a contronym.

 

  • rent: to lease property
    I was relieved to find an apartment in the city to rent that I could afford.

 

  • rent: to be leased or let for rent
    Every landlord is hoping to quickly rent their properties to reliable tenants.

Quiz time!

Were you able to keep track of the meanings of these two-faced words? After all, every single one of these words is its own antonym. Test your knowledge of these contronyms by taking our short quiz here!

 

After striking gold on that quiz (we hope you didn't strike out!), try another one, this time on the homophones cite, sight, and site!