25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

Images: iStock
Images: iStock

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

23 Notoriously Unrhymable Words (That Actually Have Rhymes)

iStock.com/MeXaHuK
iStock.com/MeXaHuK

You’ll no doubt have heard the old fact that nothing rhymes with orange. But in fact, the English surname Gorringe—as in Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, captain of the USS Gettysburg—rhymes with orange. And so does Blorenge, the name of a hill in south Wales. But even if proper nouns like surnames and place names are excluded, that still leaves sporange, an obscure name for the sporangium, which is the part of a plant that produces its spores. So although it might all depend on your accent, on how obscure a word you’re willing to accept, and on precisely where the stress falls in the word (because sporange can either rhyme with orange or be pronounced “spuh-ranj”), it seems there actually is a rhyme for orange.

In fact, despite often finding their way onto lists of notoriously unrhymable words, all of the words listed here do have rhymes in English—just so long as bizarre dialect words and obscure scientific jargon are allowed.

1. Acrid rhymes with epacrid (in some pronunciations), a name for any plant of the genus Epacris, most of which are found in Australia.

2. Angst partially rhymes with both phalanxed, meaning “arranged in rows,” and thanksed, an old word meaning “given thanks to.”

3. Beige is pronounced so that it sounds more like the first syllable of Asia than it does similarly spelled words like age, gauge, stage, and rage. But that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of a rhyme; there’s also greige, the name for the dull color of undyed fabric.

4. Bulb rhymes with culb, an obscure 17th century word for a retort or a barbed reply.

5. Chaos rhymes with naos, a name for the innermost part of a Greek temple, and speos, an Egyptian tomb built into a cave.

6. Circle rhymes with hurkle, an old dialect word meaning “to pull your arms and legs in towards your body,” as well as both heterocercal and homocercal, two zoological terms describing the tails of fish that are either asymmetrical or symmetrical, respectively.

7. Circus has a homophone, cercus, which is the name of a bodily appendage found on certain insects, and so rhymes with cysticercus, another name for a tapeworm larva. If that’s too obscure, why not try rhyming it with murcous—a 17th century word meaning “lacking a thumb.”

8. Concierge is a direct borrowing from French, so the number of English words it can rhyme with is already limited. But there is demi-vierge, another French loanword used as an old-fashioned name for a unchaste young woman—or, as Merriam-Webster explains, “a girl … who engages in lewd or suggestive speech and usually promiscuous petting but retains her virginity.” It literally means “half-virgin.”

9. Dunce rhymes with punce, a dialect word for flattened, pounded meat, or for a sudden hard kick, among other definitions.

10. False rhymes with valse, which is an alternative name for a waltz, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

11. Film rhymes with pilm, an old southern English word for dust or fine powder.

12. Filth rhymes with both spilth, which is the quantity lost when a drink is spilled (or the spilling itself), and tilth, meaning hard work or labor.

13. Gouge rhymes with scrouge, which means “to crowd or crush together.” In 19th century college slang, a scrouge was also a long, dull, or arduous lesson or piece of work.

14. Gulf rhymes with both sulf, which is another name for toadflax plants, and culf, an old southwest English word for the loose feathers that come out of pillows and cushions.

15. Music rhymes with both ageusic and dysgeusia, both of which are medical words describing a total lack of or minor malfunction in a person’s sense of taste, respectively.

16. Purple rhymes with hirple, meaning “to limp” or “walk awkwardly,” and curple, an old Scots word for a leather strap that goes beneath the tail of a horse to secure its saddle (it also more broadly means "buttocks").

17. Replenish rhymes with both displenish, which means “to remove furniture,” and Rhenish, meaning “relating to the river Rhine.”

18. Rhythm rhymes with the English place name Lytham as well as smitham, an old word for fine malt dust or powdered lead ore.

19. Silver, after purple and orange, is the third of three English colors supposedly without rhymes. But there is chilver, an old dialect word for a ewe lamb.

20. Wasp rhymes with both cosp, a hasp for fastening a door or gate, and knosp, an architectural ornament resembling the bud of a tree.

21. Width rhymes with sidth, an English dialect word variously used for the length, depth, or breadth of something—or literally the length of one side.

22. Window rhymes with tamarindo, a Spanish-American drink made of boiled and sweetened tamarind fruit.

23. Women rhymes with both timon, an old word for the rudder of a ship, and dimmen, meaning “to grow dim” or “to set like the sun.” Woman, however, has no rhyme at all. (Apparently.)

A version of this list first ran in 2015.

100 Words Turning 100 This Year

YouTube
YouTube

In 1919, just a few months after World War I came to an end, the phrase World War 2 made its debut. The Oxford English Dictionary described it as "a reference to an imagined future war arising out of the social upheaval consequent upon the First World War." Twenty years later, the event wouldn't seem so imaginary.

Join editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy as she journeys into the past to dig up a whopping 100 words that are turning 100 this year in our all-new Mental Floss List Show. Whip out your OED and read along as you check out the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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