This is part of an occasional series showcasing the wacky crazy and lovable world of the English language.
I’m a native English speaker. I also have a degree in English, and I have a teaching certification in English and English as a Second or Other Language. I also teach English pronunciation. To make things worse, I read a lot – in English. English is kind of my jam (something I enjoy a lot).
I also have to laugh at the crazy things about English that I “know” as a teacher/speaker/reader/etc., but that I forget about until they’re right in my face (made very obvious).
A few years ago, I read a book called Cleaving. It is about a woman who is at once very much in love with her husband, and also keeps getting into relationships with other men. She also becomes a butcher. And, it’s non-fiction.
Questionably taste in literature aside, the book re-introduced me to the world of …contranyms!
What, you ask, is a contranym? Well, let me tell you!
According to Wiktionary.com, a contranym is a word which has two or more accepted meanings in the English language that directly or generally contradict each other. They’re also called antagonyms (isn’t that a great word!), and Janus words, after the Roman god with two faces.
First off, where do these words come from? There are few explanations.
Sometimes two words, with different but similar spellings and pronunciations, take on the same spelling and pronunciation over time. “Cleave” is one example of this – one meaning, “to cut apart”, comes from Old English word clēofan. Another meaning, “to stick together”, comes from the Old English word clifian.
Other words will sometimes take on new, additional meanings over time. For example, “sanction” comes from the Latin word sanctio, meaning “law; decree”, basically making something valid. Over time “sanction” has taken on the meaning “penalty; punishment”, basically making something invalid.
And, sometimes, different regions just use words differently! For example, in British English, to “table” a potential law means to “debate” it. In American English, to “table” means to stop debating it!
Some of my favorites:
Bolt – (verb) to secure or lock; to run away
Remember to bolt the door. The horse bolted down the road.
Buckle – (verb) to fasten; to bend then break
Please buckle your belt. He buckled under the pressure.
Clip – (verb) to attach; to cut off
Clip these papers together. Clip off the tag.
Dust – (verb) to remove tiny particles of matter; to add tiny particles of matter
He dusted the bookshelves. The children dusted the picture with glitter.
Fix – (noun) a solution to a problem; a negative situation
I found a fix for the program. When she quit her job, she left us in a fix.
Left – (past tense of “leave”) to have gone elsewhere; (adjective) remaining
They left the building. It’s the only one left.
Overlook – (verb) to monitor closely; to fail to notice
The proctor overlooked the test takers. The tutor overlooked his spelling errors.
Seed – (verb) to sow something with seeds; to remove seeds from something
I seeded my yard with wildflowers. I seeded the orange.
Weather – (verb) to last for a long time; to become worn
He weathered the arguments. The porch has weathered over time.
A deeper dive: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auto-antonym