75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings)

background image 384

The English language includes an interesting category of words and phrases called contronyms (also spelled contranyms, or referred to as autoantonyms) — terms that, depending on context, can have opposite or contradictory meanings. When you use these words, be sure the context clearly identifies which meaning is intended:

1. Apology: A statement of contrition for an action, or a defense of one
2. Aught: All, or nothing
3. Bill: A payment, or an invoice for payment
4. Bolt: To secure, or to flee
5. Bound: Heading to a destination, or restrained from movement
6. Buckle: To connect, or to break or collapse
7. Cleave: To adhere, or to separate
8. Clip: To fasten, or detach
9. Consult: To offer advice, or to obtain it
10. Continue: To keep doing an action, or to suspend an action
11. Custom: A common practice, or a special treatment
12. Dike: A wall to prevent flooding, or a ditch
13. Discursive: Moving in an orderly fashion among topics, or proceeding aimlessly in a discussion
14. Dollop: A large amount (British English), or a small amount
15. Dust: To add fine particles, or to remove them
16. Enjoin: To impose, or to prohibit
17. Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable
18. Fine: Excellent, or acceptable or good enough
19. Finished: Completed, or ended or destroyed
20. First degree: Most severe in the case of a murder charge, or least severe in reference to a burn
21. Fix: To repair, or to castrate
22. Flog: To promote persistently, or to criticize or beat
23. Garnish: To furnish, as with food preparation, or to take away, as with wages
24. Give out: To provide, or to stop because of a lack of supply
25. Go: To proceed or succeed, or to weaken or fail
26. Grade: A degree of slope, or a horizontal line or position
27. Handicap: An advantage provided to ensure equality, or a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement
28. Help: To assist, or to prevent or (in negative constructions) restrain
29. Hold up: To support, or to impede
30. Lease: To offer property for rent, or to hold such property
31. Left: Remained, or departed
32. Let: Allowed, or hindered
33. Liege: A feudal lord, or a vassal
34. Literally: Actually, or virtually
35. Mean: Average or stingy, or excellent
36. Model: An exemplar, or a copy
37. Off: Deactivated, or activated, as an alarm
38. Out: Visible, as with stars showing in the sky, or invisible, in reference to lights
39. Out of: Outside, or inside, as in working out of a specific office
40. Overlook: To supervise, or to neglect
41. Oversight: Monitoring, or failing to oversee
42. Peer: A person of the nobility, or an equal
43. Presently: Now, or soon
44. Put out: Extinguish, or generate
45. Puzzle: A problem, or to solve one
46. Quantum: Significantly large, or a minuscule part
47. Quiddity: Essence, or a trifling point of contention
48. Quite: Rather (as a qualifying modifier), or completely
49. Ravel: To entangle, or to disentangle
50. Refrain: To desist from doing something, or to repeat
51. Rent: To purchase use of something, or to sell use
52. Rock: An immobile mass of stone or figuratively similar phenomenon, or a shaking or unsettling movement or action
53. Sanction: To approve, or to boycott
54. Sanguine: Confidently cheerful, or bloodthirsty
55. Scan: To peruse, or to glance
56. Screen: To present, or to conceal
57. Seed: To sow seeds, or to shed or remove them
58. Shop: To patronize a business in order to purchase something, or to sell something
59. Skin: To cover, or to remove
60. Skinned: Covered with skin, or with the skin removed
61. Splice: To join, or to separate
62. Stakeholder: One who has a stake in an enterprise, or a bystander who holds the stake for those placing a bet
63. Strike: To hit, or to miss in an attempt to hit
64. Table: To propose (in British English), or to set aside
65. Temper: To soften, or to strengthen
66. Throw out: To dispose of, or to present for consideration
67. Transparent: Invisible, or obvious
68. Trim: To decorate, or to remove excess from
69. Trip: A journey, or a stumble
70. Unbending: Rigid, or relaxing
71. Variety: A particular type, or many types
72. Wear: To endure, or to deteriorate
73. Weather: To withstand, or to wear away
74. Wind up: To end, or to start up
75. With: Alongside, or against

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

87 thoughts on “75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings)”

  1. A few of these are decidedly dodgy, but one or two are plain ludicrous. ‘Literally’ meaning ‘virtually’? That takes the biscuit, but only figuratively.

  2. More contronyms that have amused me over the years: “pit” (a hard and very solid seed, or a gaping hole), “founder” (a person who builds something up, or the act of sinking something down), “incorporate” (to be a distinct legal entity, or to be a small part absorbed into some other whole), and “livid” (flushed with anger, or pale with fear).
    And to think, I’ve been noticing these for years without ever realizing there was a term to describe the phenomenon. You’ve completely made my day. Thanks!

  3. Very enlightening – I wouldn’t hve thought there were so many of them! What is the source for this research?
    However, from a British English point of view, there are several examples in your list which do not have both meanings (in my experience).
    And there are several for which the same word has come to be used as its antonym due to confusion, ignorance (i.e. ineffective education) and perhaps mis-reading. So the usage isn’t universal, and thus the author’s true meaning can be unclear.


    For example:

    clip [opposite: unclip]
    continue [opposite: discontinue]
    help [I can’t think of its opposite]
    literally [its opposite is not ‘literally’!]
    mean [this is never excellent]
    presently [always means soon]
    seed [opposite: de-seed]
    shop [only in colloquial use does this mean selling]
    table [we only use the first meaning]
    unbending [never come across it meaning relaxing]

  4. I love the word ‘got’. I can’t imagine the GOT MILK? campaign being the hit it was had the slogan been HAVE MILK? And that goes for its imitators, including the (at one time) ubiquitous GOT GOD?

    Nor would I want to lose the great line: Get it? Got it? Good! Without the ‘got’ it would have no punch at all.

    Guttural sounds shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. They add seasoning that most of us would miss terribly if eradicated from the English language.

  5. Some of your so-called contradictory words, are not really contradictory. The words simply have an alternate or an additional meaning: trip, rock, refrain, etc.

  6. Well said, Furry Canary

    And I agree with much of what you say, Paul (I’m another Commonwealth speaker – an Aussie)

    A few comments:
    Clip [the only opposite in Oz (Australian) English is ‘unclip’]
    Consult [never means “to offer advice” here]
    Continue [the only ‘suspend’ meaning is in US law – a US trial lawyer “asks for a continuance,” a Commonwealth barrister “seeks an adjournment”]
    Custom [never ‘special treatment’ – where it means ‘special’ it is an adjective, e.g., “custom-made”‘]
    Dollop [In Oz = any amount]
    Enjoin [‘enjoin = prohibit’ ‘enjoin upon = impose’]
    Fix [The ‘castrate’ meaning is definitely colloquial]
    Flog [The ‘promote persistently’ meaning is definitely colloquial; we also extend the colloquial to mean ‘sell (particularly illegal/dodgy merchandise, or for an outrageous price)’]
    Garnish [when meaning ‘take out of wages,’ Oz uses ‘garnishee’]
    Help [the only opposite is ‘hinder’]
    Lease [compound verb – one “leases a property *to* a tenant,” the tenant leases it *from* you]
    Liege [‘liege’ is originally an adjective – one has a ‘liege-lord’ or a ‘liege-man.’ These are people bound by a feudal relationship]
    Literally [‘= virtually’ is the same type of – teenage – hyperbole as ‘awesome = good’]
    Mean [ditto]
    Out Of [the ‘office’ usage is a metaphor, based on the idea that one is looking ‘out of’ a booth]
    Overlook/Oversee/Oversight [the first meanings are “Harvard-MBA-speak” or its imitation in bureaucratese]
    Presently [only means ‘soon’ in Oz]
    Puzzle [usually compounded (One puzzles *over* a mystery, but puzzles it *out*.) The only stand-alone verbal form of ‘puzzle’ in Commonwealth English is the past participle – one *is* puzzled”; one cannot “puzzle a question” or “puzzle a solution”]
    Ravel [not in common use in Oz, in either meaning]
    Refrain [only a noun; never a verb meaning ‘repeat’ in Oz]
    Sanction [only a noun; never a verb meaning ‘boycott’ in Oz]
    Seed [in Oz one cannot ‘seed the melon,” one ‘takes the seeds out’ of it]
    Shop [The ‘sell’ meaning is definitely colloquial; we also extend this to mean ‘betray’ (“he shopped the bloke to the cops = he betrayed the man to the police”)]
    Skin [only ‘remove the skin’ in Oz]
    Splice [only ‘join’ in Oz]
    Strike [‘miss’ is a baseball term, and usually only in compounded form ‘strike at/out’]
    Table [only the first meaning in Oz]
    Throw Out [“= present for consideration” is slangy/”Harvard-MBA-speak” here]
    Transparent [*only* means “that can be seen through.” Each of your usages is a metaphor that is itself transparent]
    Unbending [‘= relaxing’ would be understood here (“She was unbending as we spoke”) but would sound stilted]


  7. Comments on 28. Help: To assist, or to prevent or (in negative constructions) restrain:

    The negative construction “cannot help doing sth.” might be understood as “cannot assist to do it, because it happens anyway”. The message might be hidden behind the words.

  8. Thanks Mark and the others who gave more examples and some clarifications on the difference between UK/US/AUS, etc.. This is a great list, I’ll share it on our blog as it could be useful resources for linguists around the world!

  9. Whoa! I never knew such things existed. Are these things typically counted as advanced grammar? My write ups on writing are more focused on structure and persuasion, but I’m digging deep into the grammar technicalities. It’s fun to learn all these rules and structures! Lol.

  10. I sent my comments through the Contact button. If they don’t show up here in a little while, I will use this space to post them. Basically I noted that “cleave” and “refrain” aren’t actually contranyms, because each is an example of two separate words which have always had separate meanings, but have acquired the same spelling.

  11. Thank you Brian for bringing that up. I also found that website, and I’d like to mention that “contronym” is perhaps not the best word for these difficult words. First, it might be, and perhaps should be, “contranym” with an “A” instead of an “O”. Second, either way, it combines a prefix derived from Latin with “nym” derived from Greek. For that reason, I think “antagonym” is preferable because both parts are derived from Greek.

  12. Freud noticed an identical phenomenon in German in his essay “The Uncanny.” “Heimlich” has a secondary meaning synonymous with “unheimlich.” I also read somewhere that “guest” and “host” both come from the same Indo-European root that means both, a word which also gave rise to the word “ghost.”

  13. Americans say we have a right to be tried by a jury of their peers. But a peer jury is the right of the British nobility to be tried by their peers (the House of Lords). Americans are only guaranteed a right by trial in front of an impartial jury since we don’t have peers.

  14. I would also be interested in words of single meaning that contradict themselves so should not be in the dictionary.

    For example, the word “indefinable” when applied, appears a blatant logical contradiction. It is an adjective. So it modifies a definable noun or pronoun. How can something definable be modified to something indefinable?

    E.g. An indefinable terror. Terror is definable since there are a finite list of terrors people can experience. So it can’t be indefinable.

    I wonder if this word should be allowed in the dictionary. Contradictions can seriously deceive people.

  15. Here’s another one:-

    Nothingness. It is a noun, hence the subject of a verb but nothingness cannot be anything except nothingness. It cannot be a noun, nor verb, nor any word at all. Contradiction!

    So this word must be a delusion. I don’t think it should be in the dictionary unless people like being deceived.

  16. My favorite is “pitch”, a DOUBLE autoantonym. Pitch can mean to actively promote or encourage acceptance of (I pitched my screenplay to the producer.), or to discard (That toner cartridge is empty. You should pitch it.) Pitch can also mean a level surface (The soccer players have come out onto the pitch.), or a steep incline (The roofer charged me extra due to the steep pitch of my roof.)

  17. Dictionary.com says the “all” version of “aught” means “at all, in any respect,” not an “omni-.” The two meanings of “consult” are not antonymic at all. That would be to receive advice or reject it. Definitely on “quite.” Its two meanings aren’t even close to antonymic.

    And, that’s just a brief bit of grammar police.

    Let’s not over extend “A Way with Cuteness with Words.”

  18. I agree that “literally” to mean “virtually” is ridiculous.

    SocraticGadfly has a point: some of these words are not contradictory, but complementary (lease, rent, etc.) The same word describes participation in either end of a transaction (much as, if I’m not mistaken, “prestar” means either “to borrow” or “to lend” in Spanish.)

    I’m tempted to say that, strictly speaking, words that are not the same party of speech cannot be opposites, and to point out that “left” takes different auxiliary verbs in each of its “contrary” meanings — but I would risk being overly fussy and pedantic. 🙂

  19. Like Sally, I too am from Australia.
    However, I disagree with some of the meanings corrected by her.

    For instance, I would use the word ‘consult’ in both ways the article describes. Many people I know, including myself, would say clip to cut/disconnect something and to join something together – Not necessarily a clip(!). Another example would be skin, it IS used as a verb AND a noun; transparent is arguable as well…

    I also believe a refrain, in music at least, is a repetition, Sally.

    (and yes, I do realise that these comments are old…)

    Thanks :>

  20. You forgot OUTSTANDING…
    1. Excellent
    2. Unfinished or incomplete…outstanding debt

    Your work is outstanding! (Excellent work, above average)
    You have outstanding work, please turn it in. (Incomplete, unfinished )

  21. After reading Paul’s comments I wonder if maybe back in 2011, is it that back then he was just ignorant or a complete dumbass.

    There are obviously opposite words in addition to the same word meaning its opposite. Yes you CAN clip something together or unclip it, however you can also remove something by Clipping it.

    I’ve never heard of anyone UnClipping their dog’s ears, only Clipping them (just for Paul: which means removing a portion of it).


    “literally [its opposite is not ‘literally’!]” This literally is the dumbest thing I have ever heard, because I literally just threw up in my mouth, literally.

    “mean [this is never excellent]”, what do you MEAN exactly? oh, exactly that?

    presently [always means soon]”, except that I am presently working on tearing you down. I’m not going to do this soon, I am presently working on it, I might even stop and tell someone I am presently working on it and then come back to it and presume my present state of action.

    and finally, where did any of this say it was Australian Grammar. Believe me when I say that within the States, there are differences in Grammar and meaning of English words just from different regions. Have you ever watch English TV and US tele? They use words all the time that mean a complete opposite to the other. Bloody Aussie Bastards. In the US thats a term of endearment….

  22. I would add “downhill.” It has the double sense of an easier or improved situation (“it’s all downhill from here”) and a worse or deteriorating situation (“after his divorce he really went downhill”).

  23. It addition to the comments about regional application, I would add, after an admittedly cursory glance at the list, that another level of clarification is required, if it is to be of much use. For example: 1) some of the different meanings apply to only one part of speech (e.g. when used as a noun or verb, etc.; and/or 2) some apply to only one particular fixed expression; and/or 3) some apply when the verb is used transitively (and vice versa – the other meaning intransitively).

  24. The list is wrong.

    Do not form opinions unless the are reasonable.
    Do not accept that which is neither reasonable or personal.

  25. Should go back over the list. Some aren’t applicable.
    For example, puzzle. How is pondering a puzzle the opposite of a puzzle? It’s defining the very same thing. That one was flagrant.

    Now if puzzle meant to both ponder and to entirely ignore, THAT would be a contronym.

    Wear and weather both have the same meanings. To deteriorate IS to withstand (and not be destroyed) A 90 year old man could be said to have weathered the tests of time, yet he would also clearly be weathered. There is no 90 year old man who isn’t weathered and hasn’t weathered, so they can’t be contronyms. If there could be a 90 year old man who looked 25, I’d give it to you, but weathering implies taking a beating and surviving, not remaining pretty.

  26. Good stuff. Not quite the same thing, but this discussion brings to mind some word play items I enjoy….
    ” a part ” versus ” apart ”
    Two separate words implies together. One word implies separation.

    Parking in driveways. Driving on parkways.

  27. Am I late to the party?

    I see “bill” but not “check” which can be “A paper document (such as in a restaurant) showing an amount owed” or “a paper document showing an amount paid”. That always confused me as a little kid. “Thanks for the check, I’m paying it with a check. Next time give me a bill and I’ll pay it with a bill.”

    Thanks, English.

  28. Reply to Raymond
    While guest and host came from the same P. I. E, ghost has ‘appeared’ from different root. I first encountered the Fruedean Heimlech in a novel “House of Leaves”, it is uncanny that I was wondering just yesterday about a ‘scene’ described in it wherein the protagonist may (would) burn pages to read a book (note that pages are also called leaves), more a conundrum than a contranym.

  29. As an English teacher, now retired, I’ve been collecting collecting pairs of words similar to contranyms for many years. I called them anti-homophones (opposite in meaning “anti” and sounds alike “homophone”), since I couldn’t find a source that knew the correct term. I even wrote a letter to “Christy, the Wordsmilth” who had a radio show on public radio. Now I find there are many terms. Can “contronyms” be spelled differently, for example “raise” and “raze”? I’d also like to add “wad” (small amount , as in a paper wad to be shot out of a straw, and “wad” (a large amount, as in a wad of money that could choke a horse.

    I do believe that some of the contronyms listed require a bit of a stretch and some contextual massaging. Many of these have been pointed out by earlier posts.

  30. How about “Revolution”?

    1, To change dramatically and irrevocably
    2. To end exactly where one started, coming full circle.

  31. “Shell” is a contronym in 2 different senses.

    As a noun, it can mean a cannon’s projectile or the part of ordinance that is NOT the projectile (in a shotgun or rifle, for instance).

    As a verb, it can mean to remove shells from something or send shells towards something:

    remove: “We shelled these pistachios.”
    towards: “We shelled the rebels for 30 minutes, but they’re still fighting back.”

  32. Unlockable

    1. Meaning that it is not possible to lock the door i.e. it is not lockable.

    2. Meaning that you CAN unlock the door i.e. you can unlock it.

  33. CONSTRAIN. It could mean to compel someone to a certain action, but it could also mean to prevent/restrain from a said course.

  34. I only agree with a very few of these. Most of them are not true opposites. For instance the act of “Bolting” is running away. Securing is not the opposite. Garnish is the one word that is perfect. As I read them, only “dust” really fits the definition. Law terms and non-Modern / other languages are not correct. Anything over one word is a phrase, and by using the proper second word, you can easily say the opposite.

  35. Also, the word “Execute” can mean to begin (to execute a plan) to venture forth. Conversely, Execute can also mean to end or kill something or someone.
    “If we execute the plan correctly, person A will be executed.”
    (no actually plan to harm anyone, sentence used simply as an example.)

  36. I know “literally” has now been overused as emphasis, however, what are the feelings on its use ironically? I think people are now beginning to transition from using it incorrectly to now using it for comic effect.

  37. Even the word “terrific” could be a contromym. Depending on the tone of the sentence, this word can be used in a positive sense and otherwise. (Example, wonderful and awful)

  38. There are some good comments I don’t have to reiterate, however what I don’t see, whether we are talking expressions or proper English is the correct use of the word “continue” as meaning to suspend something. For that the word “discontinue” would be the correct word to use. I believe that is used in the Queen’s English as well as in the U.S. and Canada.

  39. I do not agree on oversight as a legitimate noun form of oversee. This was a recent American mistaken meaning that has been rather hilarious. American oversight committees remain committees apparently constituted to fail to notice things. They should be overseeing committees

  40. I’m from the US, where to “table” a bill in Congress means to put it aside. But I live in Uganda, where “tabling” a bill means to bring it forward to the table, for consideration. I’m not sure what the UK meaning is, but I’m curious to find out.

  41. In terms of use/purpose, shape and materials, I’d like to offer shaft (n).

    Whether made or found, it is (or looks like) a long solid object that has something useful at one or both ends (or had or might have) – such as a tool or wheel.

    Or it can be a cavity in a solid that has very similar shape and also has (‘or’s as above) useful stuff at one or both ends – such as fresh air, living space, or ore – or it just looks like one.

  42. I have a few egregious examples:

    Egregious: Outstandingly bad, or remarkably good.
    Literally: literally, or figuratively
    “I literally died laughing when he literally couldn’t even remember how old he was”
    Undoable: unable to be done, able to be undone.
    Bail: To remove water from a ship in an effort to save it, to flee a ship before it sinks.
    “First, we tried to bail water from the ship. That didn’t work, so we bailed and swam to shore.”
    Book: To make a reservation, to leave a place.
    “We booked a hotel.” “We booked it from the hotel.”
    Can: to be able to do something, to reject something.
    “We can do that” “That won’t work. Can that idea”

Leave a Comment