I enjoy the English language and all the little quirks that come with it. One such quirk can be found in contronyms, or words that are their own opposites, with two definitions that contradict each other. Contronyms are also called antagonyms, autoantonyms, and Janus words. I’ve compiled a list of contronyms that I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I do.
citation: an order to appear in court, an acknowledgment of achievement
clip: to secure or to hold tight, to cut off
cleave: to hold tightly, to separate
custom: a common practice, something that is specially designed
dust: to remove fine particles, to add fine particles (such as dusting a cake with powdered sugar)
egregious: noticeably bad, distinguished or remarkably good (although, the latter definition is less commonly used these days)
factoid: a created fact that is believed to be true because it appears in print, a trivial fact
fast: to affix to something or firmly remain in one spot, to move quickly
first degree: can be used to mean minor as in first-degree burn, or something very serious such as first-degree murder
garnish: to add for decorative purposes (to garnish a plate), to take away to settle a debt (garnished his wages)
hew: to cut down with an ax, to adhere to (such as hew to tradition)
left: to leave (he left right after dinner), remaining (Is there any cake left?)
literally: to actually take place or happen in a literal sense (I literally had to start my paper again when my computer crashed), to exaggerate for effect (If I have to write this paper one more time, I think my head will literally explode) This is probably my favorite from the list, because there have been heated arguments over the proper use of this word. When someone uses the word literally to emphasize their point, many people argue that they don’t mean literally, they mean figuratively, but as you can see, it means both. However, if you want to be safe, use literally when something actually happened, and when you use a figure of speech to emphasize a point, drop the literally from the sentence and you’ll be fine. (If I have to write this paper one more time, I think my head will explode).
oversight: to carefully oversee something such as a project, inadvertent error or omission
peer: a person of equal standing to you, a member of British nobility
peruse: to skim or read superficially, to read thoroughly and in detail
sanction: to formally approve or accept, to impose a penalty
sanguine: bloodthirsty, confident or optimistic
table: American English this means to remove from consideration for an indefinite period of time, British English this means to add to a debate or agenda (in American English it can mean this too when used as “the issue is on the table”)
trim: to remove by cutting (I had my hair trimmed), to add by decorating (Will you help me trim the tree?)
There are many more contronyms than what I covered here. What’s one of your favorite contronyms or one that didn’t make the list? Is this the first time you’re hearing the term contronym? If you’re still interested in contronyms, Merriam-Webster as an article on how some contronyms are believed to have come about.