75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings)

By Mark Nichol

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

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49 Responses to “75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings)”

  • Mr Bananapants esq.

    You can add liberal (political) and liberal (philosophical)

  • Dag

    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.

  • Robert

    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.

  • Jonathan Davis

    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

  • DN

    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.

  • Nick

    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)

  • Ross

    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.

  • Peter Thwing

    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.)

  • Rick Dashiell

    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.

  • Joel LeFevre

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

  • Lewis

    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.

  • Colin Brown

    inflammable = not flammable or easily set on fire

  • Br. Bill

    “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.”

  • Allen Rubinstein

    How about “Revolution”?

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

  • Jim

    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.

  • MAK

    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.

  • Bill Cipher

    Your minds amuse me.

  • Snooj Dowdy

    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.

  • KT

    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.

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