The term contronym was coined by Jack Herring in 1962. Such words are also referred to as auto-antonyms or Janus words (after the Roman god Janus, who is depicted with two faces.)
Why do they occur?
Some contronyms are distinct words with different etymologies that come into the language in the same form or spelling, eg., rock, as in “a solid mineral material” (Old North French), or “rock a child” (Old Norse).
Other Janus words happen where a single word acquires different and sometimes opposite definitions. The word sanction, for example, diverged over time to mean both “permit” and “penalize.”
Auto-antonyms can also result from nouns being verbed, like dust. If you say, “I’m dusting the room,” it’s highly unlikely that you’re sprinkling dust on the tabletops in the same manner as powdering a cake with sugar.
Contronyms may occur due to varying dialects in the same language. In British English, to table a bill means “to put up for debate, whereas in American English, it means “to remove from a debate.”
Though the examples are numerous, here is a short list of 25 common contronyms:
bolt – to secure or to flee
bound – heading to a destination or restrained from movement
buckle – to connect or to break or collapse
clip – to fasten together or cut away
consult – to offer advice or to obtain it
custom – a common practice or a special treatment
discursive – moving in an orderly fashion among topics or proceeding aimlessly in a discussion
fast – quick, stuck, or made stable
fix – to repair or to castrate
garnish – to furnish, as with food preparation, or take away, as with wages
handicap – an advantage provided to ensure equality or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement
left – remained or departed
mean – average, stingy, or excellent
model – an exemplar or a copy
overlook – to supervise or to neglect
screen – to present or to conceal
skinned – covered with skin or with the skin removed
strike – to hit or to miss in an attempt to hit
temper – to soften or to strengthen
transparent – invisible or obvious
trim – to decorate or to remove excess from
trip – a journey or a stumble
variety – a particular type or many types
wear – to endure or to deteriorate
weather – to withstand or to wear away
If you enjoyed reading about contronyms, you might also be interested in common eponyms and the notorious personalities behind them, the reason acronyms have exploded since the 19th century, or find out if your name is a capitonym!
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