Contronyms in English

(Also Called Contranyms or Auto-antonyms)


There are many interesting words in English. A contronym is any word with multiple meanings in which one meaning is the reverse of another meaning. A contronym is its own antonym. How about that?

For example, the word dust can mean to remove dust OR its opposite => to cover in dust!

cover in dust

That's why contranyms are also called auto-antonyms (auto = of yourself + antonyms = a word that means the opposite of another word).

a word that means the opposite of another word

To help you understand contronyms, let’s first review some other interesting types of words in English.

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Synonyms and Antonyms

A synonym is a word that has the same meaning as another word.

Example: happy and cheerful

happy and cheerful
There are many synonyms in English!



An antonym is a word that has the opposite meaning of another word.

Example: happy and sad

happy and sad
Not all English words have antonyms.


Homophones and Homographs

Homophones are two or more words that have the same sound, but different meanings.

Example: too, two, to

  • Mrs. Jones is Cindy's teacher. She is my teacher too.

    Mrs. Jones is Cindy's teacher. She is my teacher too.


  • I have two bears.

    I have two bears.


  • She drove to the store yesterday.

    She drove to the store yesterday.




Homographs
are words that are spelled the same, but have different meanings (and are not always pronounced the same).

Example: row (noun) vs row (verb)

  • Row (noun): The desks were lined up in a row.

    The desks were lined up in a row.

  • Row (verb): I will row the boat to the shore.

    Row (verb): I will row the boat to the shore.


Contronyms

A contronym (also spelled contranym) is a special type of homograph that can be its own antonym. Contronyms are also sometimes called auto-antonyms.

A contronym has reverse meanings depending on the context. When you use these words, make sure the context is clear, so the meaning is correct.

Let’s look at some examples:

bolt => (verb) to secure / to flee

  • meaning 1: to secure

    The man bolted the sink to the wall.

    The man bolted the sink to the wall.


  • meaning 2: to flee

    The boy saw the bats and bolted out of the cave.

    The boy saw the bats and bolted out of the cave.

off => deactivate / activate

  • meaning 1: deactivated

    Push the red button to turn the alarm off (deactivate it).

    Push the red button to turn the alarm off (deactivate it).

  • meaning 2: activated

    The alarm went off at 6:40 a.m. (The alarm activated.)

    The alarm went off at 6:40 a.m. (The alarm activated.)

rent => to purchase use of something / to sell use of something

  • meaning 1: to purchase use of something

    I am renting this apartment for one year. (I pay to live here.)



  • meaning 2: to sell use of something

    I rent my cabin to tourists during the winter months. (Other people pay money to stay here.)

    I rent my cabin to tourists during the winter months. (Other people pay money to stay here.)

strike => to hit / to miss an attempt to hit

  • meaning 1: to hit

    The orange car struck the green car. (The orange car hit the green car.)

    The orange car struck the green car.


    The earthquake struck the city. (There was an earthquake in the city.)

    The earthquake struck the city.
  • meaning 2: to miss an attempt to hit

    A strike in baseball is when a batter swings and misses the ball. Then the umpire says, "Strike one!"

    A strike in baseball is when a batter swings and misses the ball.

Here are some more English contronyms for you to study:
  • backup => to retreat / to give support

  • bill => a payment / an invoice for payment

  • bound => fastened to a spot / heading to a new place

  • buckle => to secure / to collapse

  • clip => to fasten / to detach

  • dust => to remove dust / to cover in dust

  • fearful => causing fear / to be full of fear

  • fix => to repair / to castrate

  • garnish => to add to (as with food) / to take away (as with money)

  • handicap => an advantage (as in sports) / a disadvantage

  • lease => to lend / to borrow

  • left => remaining / departed

  • pitted => having pits / having pits removed

  • seed => to add seeds / to remove seeds

  • skin => to cover with skin / to remove skin

  • trim => to decorate (as with a Christmas Tree) / to remove excess

  • wear => to deteriorate or erode / to withstand or endure

  • weather => to withstand / to wear away

  • wicked => evil / very good (slang)

You can always check a dictionary.
There are many more contronyms in English, but these are some of the most common. If you are not sure about the meaning of a word, you can always check a dictionary!


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