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.





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    Maintain can be used to describe keeping something at a certain level of perfection, or keeping it at bare minimum standards required for it to fill its purpose. Does that count?

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      This is an interesting one, because you’re right, it can mean to keep something in a certain or desired state, and it can also mean to maintain by making repairs.
      I was talking to a few people about this post yesterday, and there was a comment about how it’s a wonder that anyone can learn the English language. Interestingly, English is not the only language that has contronyms, and luckily, the context usually provides the meaning of the word.

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    For the record, I love the word antagonyms. It’s like the two definitions are not just contrary. They’re full out antagonistic to each other. 😀

    The definitions for dust make me smile because it can also refer to the fine particles that you are dusting.

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      Haha I was thinking about that when I wrote the entry for dust too. It’s as if there was a lazy word day and they just dumped a bunch of definitions under that word. Too much energy would have been expended to come up with another word for cleaning up the dust. 😀

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        I can just imagine them being like, “What’s a word for cleaning up dust?”

        “Oh, I don’t know. Let’s call it dusting.”

        “Oh, dusting. That’s good. Yeah. Let’s call it dusting.”

        😀 😆

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    Yes to this list of contronyms! ‘Literally’ is a word that I think I have abused in the past, literally, so it’s my favorite contronym. 🙂

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      Yay, I’m glad you liked it! I think avid readers and writers have a tendency to fall in love with words, but I had no idea just how much I loved them until I started writing posts like this. I discovered over the past few days that when I spoke about this post to someone, I had a huge grin on my face.

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    Huh. I think I was vaguely aware of how some definitions seemed to contradict their terms. But I didn’t know there was an actual word for those, well, words and hadn’t thought about it consciously until reading your post. As for another example, how about “refrain”? It can mean a repeated verse in a song, or to stop oneself from doing something.

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      Refrain is a good one. As I recall, there are a few contronyms with one definition dealing with music. Contronyms have been on my radar for the past few words, because they’re so interesting. I think peruse was the first one that came up while I was editing a story. They’ve intrigued me ever since. The synonyms for contronym; however, were unfamiliar to me before I started double checking all my definitions for this post.

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    Actually I do love this tension that exist within a word, though I think I would find it hard to use in writing unless you want to introduce ambiguity where I have found that there some would argue that your writing should not be ambiguous. The use of antithesis on the other hand is highly effective I think, and maybe that would be fun to use it to such effect…

    He left the room, yet if a scent of him remained left…. hmm

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      It’s interesting that you point out ambiguity, because I think that many people mistakenly use ambiguous language, not realizing that the context leaves the meaning open when they were thinking of only one meaning for the word, while another reader thought of a different meaning for that word. This seems to happen a lot in contract law.
      I’ve come across this in my writing group. One instance that comes to mind was a story where I used the word inertia, and I was using it with physics in mind where something stays in motion until acted upon by an external force, but it can also mean to doing nothing, remain inactive, or unchanged.
      I like words that can have added meaning, where the literal meaning is clear and correct, but there are hidden layers. I find this occurs often in poetry and adds depth to a piece. That doesn’t make it ambiguous, but it came to mind while reading your comment.

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