75 Contronyms (Words with Contradictory Meanings)

By Mark Nichol

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

  • Lola

    Apparently the word entitled has also become a contronym … much to my chagrin.

  • KMD

    Interesting discussion and points. I’d like to ask about when to use words like “learnt” or “learned” and “spelt” or “spelled” as used above. Sometimes for me it’s about how it sounds.
    Also what is the actual term for a phrase where the phrase is in the future and using a plural verb, such as “if I were to drive the car”?

  • Adam Santanasto

    Resign is a contronym

    He resigned from office. He resigned to stay on.

  • Mariano Moreira

    Suprised Terse was not on the list.
    Can mean smoothly concise or abrubtly concise.

    Tersely can be smooth/neat/polite manner
    Or abruptly/rude manner

    Don’t be terse, be terse.

  • Adam

    To John Middlemas: Interesting idea in theory, but everything that exists has a conceptual opposite. Since to define something, you must define what it is not. “Somethingness” exists, and can be described as the opposite of “nothingness”. A thing can exist tangibly and physically as a concept, even if it doesn’t technically exist by itself, but only as an opposite. For example, “cold” is the opposite of “heat”, but cold does not exist by itself; it’s the absense of heat. And heat itself does not really exist except as a concept to describe a perception or observation of a process. Words are often contextual rather than absolutely and universally literal, such as the terms “indescribable” and “unexplainable”; so yes, nothingness exists and so do indefinable things, even if only conceptually, or physically yet contextually. What do you call the thing that is not (“nothing”)? What do you call it when someone tries to describe color to the blind (“indescribable”)? Just because a word can be misused or is nonsensical in a specific context doesn’t mean it should be entirely removed from the dictionary.

  • chris gleckler

    People at work consider an argument moot when it is no longer valid, which can also mean subject to debate. I want to curl up in a ball and cry when I hear contronyms. It is also ironic that contronym is spelled in the title but is incorrect according to the website’s spellcheck. I dislike the English language and in general having an above average intelligence.

  • Ljós Greenleaf

    Hi, I wanted to add one that’s not been mentioned here (and which I only just learned about): in the US (and apparently Australia too) since the early 20th century, nonplussed has come to mean not only “baffled to the point of speechless”, but also “unfazed”, which is pretty much its polar opposite. I was shown an entry about this in a Merriam-Webster dictionary, and was shocked to find no mention of this usage in my SOED.

  • Cody

    To Ljós Greenleaf:

    I wonder where you get the idea it’s also in Australian English? I see nothing of the sort. But if you also refer to Merriam-Webster that probably says a lot and maybe even answers the question: it isn’t as you believe. Perhaps it is some say it and you’ve heard it? I’ve not but on the other hand I have heard some say ‘period’ instead of ‘full stop’ (that one I cringe at really terribly). Also I seem to think that they say ‘soccer’ instead of ‘football’ which is also ridiculous (but I won’t get into that or full stop versus period).

    I absolutely love your surname!

  • Steve

    Garnish (add) and garnishee (subtract) are two different words here in the U.S. too.

  • Brian Behlen

    Building – Either a completed structure, or the process of building a structure.

  • ian

    Is ‘humbled’ a contranym? It means ‘humiliated’ but is commonly used as a replacement for ‘honored’.

  • Jay

    “Out of” can also be used as “I am ‘out of’ cash right now.” (Supply has “given out”)

    In copy editing you have to make sure that the “obvious meaning” as determined from context, really is obvious, and add more context, or change the phrase or sentence to make it more obvious. Too often editors reading quickly will not catch these meaning reverses or confusions — this makes for very weak writing, and the more such problems you miss or leave in, the weaker and weaker the writing becomes.

    Sometimes a manager will not understand why you’ve changed something, and will tell you to return the original phrasing. If you explain why you made the change, the manager might say, “Oh, that’s ridiculous, nobody would have thought you meant that.” The problem is that even if most people see it one way, the reverse meaning inside the phrase leads to conscious or subconscious confusion in some others, and that’s how the writing can turn into confusing gibberish in short order.

    The job of the editor is to detect these problems. If your manager tells you to just leave it as it is, you might have to leave it as it is. But don’t start to stop thinking that way, it’s the pathway to worse writing. Make a note of it and try to convince them gradually to see it your way in other situations that arise. Don’t give up. You have to maintain clarity or all is lost. It’s not just you being picky, it’s you trying to maintain some sanity and comprehensibility in your job as a proofreader or copy editor, and in the final text product.

    This reminds me of a word pair that popped up years ago. It’s not a reverse meaning, it’s approximately the same meaning for the two words, but it sounds better in some contexts and has more implications. The word choices are either “social” or “societal.” I didn’t get my way but I still think I was right. And that’s important. You have to have some self-assurance in editing even if you can’t prevail at all times.

  • John

    Drop/Dropped: “The trailer for Star Trek 17 dropped last night. The old cast from the last movie has been dropped in favor of an all-tribble crew.”

    OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer): Depending on context this either means a company that actually manufactures parts for other companies to sell, or the exact opposite.

  • Al Benjamin

    I’m surprised to find that “Fast: Quick, or stuck or made stable” does not also include the meaning of refraining from eating, e.g., I was told to fast on the day before my surgery.

  • Ron

    Washable can mean “waterproof” as in paint or dye, or “water soluble” as in school glue or paint.

  • Adrienne

    I believe “caught up” fits on this list.

    Meaning 1: Unable to finish a task (or anything else) due to being otherwise engaged in a different task or action. (“I got caught up doing my emails”)

    Meaning 2: Having finished all outstanding tasks (“My emails are now all caught up”)

  • UKMikey

    Pathetic Freak replied to Paul:

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

    I also disagree with Paul but your comment makes no sense. “Mean” means excellent when used in the colloquial sense. An example would be the sentence “Stevie Wonder plays a mean harmonica”.

    Compare similar words such as “bad” or “wicked” which are now used in the vernacular as terms of approval.

  • Robert D Jones

    The word “diversity” as a sociological term appears to have morphed into a contronym.
    On the one hand, it has been applied to “differences” as noticeable heterogeneity of identities in a group or organization in which all members are viewed as individual persons.
    On the other hand, it is used to refer to the static social identity of all members of a referent group as a category in which all members are viewed in the same way.
    Does “diversity” qualify as a contronym?

  • James Landau

    How about “black”? The word can mean “good for the economy” (as in Black Friday), or “bad for the economy” (as in Black Tuesday).

  • Jeff

    How about “effect”? The opposite of effect is cause, and “to effect” means “to cause”. E.g. to effect a change.

  • Milton

    I like “nonplussed”:
    1. (popular in the UK) surprised and confused so much as to be unsure how to react.
    2. (popular in the US) not disconcerted; unperturbed.

  • eba

    Bad: Awesome (used in slang as well) – “You know I’m bad”
    Bad: Unpleasant
    Sick: ill
    Sick: cool (used in slang)

  • W. J. Walter

    “take in” = “shelter, protect”

    “It was her habit to take in any stray dogs she happened to come across and then move heaven and earth to find homes for them.”

    “take in” = “dupe, exploit”

    “He was taken in by a con artist who promised to double his investment.”

  • Brutus

    Also Terrific, it means both mighty/great but also means horrible/hideous. People also use it to express excitement for something they approve of, when the word should mean they are fearful.

  • Mike

    Fix might have a third meaning. To Prepare, as in, “I’m fixin’ to ” do something.

  • Malcolm Hein

    Livid: Ashen, pallid. Or black-and-blue, reddish.

  • GRAYWOLF

    In the US, “liberal” is a contronym.
    liberal: maximum freedom possible
    Liberal: political philosophy of maximum government control possible.

  • J. Francis

    A glaring omission I keep noticing is “compromise”

  • Keith

    ‘Fellow’ is one more. Meaning an average Joe or an esteemed teacher, elder or leader.

  • Daz

    Many of these use meanings so obscure that I’ve never heard of them in many years as an editor … or else they stretch the meaning of contronym past the breaking point.

  • Tron

    Down in reference to air conditioning. “Turn the air down” can mean turn it so it is colder or turn it so that it isn’t cooling so much.

  • Alex

    you could include BEGUILE.

    the 75th “with” to mean “against” I’m not clear on. But “for” (eg. when taking medication) can mean “against”.

  • Marshall

    You missed a couple. Shelled means both having a shell, and also not having a shell after removing the shell. Husked is the same as is hulled. and skinned

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