Monday Metaphor: Contranyms: These Opposites Don’t Attract

A contranym or contronym is a word that has opposing meanings. It’s a word that can mean the opposite of itself.

A word to the wise contractor. When getting your instructions, if a homeowner asks you to “raise” his house, be sure that you don’t “raze” it, and if he asks you to “level” it, get explicit directions.

Was the hero of the mystery bound up (unable to move) or bound for Miami (moving away)?

The Baby Blue’s comic strip in Sunday’s funny paper extended the contranym to a phrase: After an exhausting day at the beach, the dad says, “That day at the beach was no day at the beach.”

 Yeah. Right. . . Yeah, right.

Hosting a golfer for dinner? Tea and greens should be lovely!

The seamstress trimmed extra fabric from the hem and trimmed the neck of the dress with lace.

Examples in literature:

We often think of an apology as an admission of fault and an expression of remorse.

But in his Apology of Socrates, Plato presents a defense of the charges against his old teacher.

 And within the text of the dialogue, there is this sentence:

 “I will begin at the beginning, and ask what is the accusation which has given rise to the slander of my person, and in fact has encouraged Meletus to prefer this charge against me.” This term is probably quite meaningful to lawyers, but most folks think of prefer as liking or wanting something or somebody more than something/somebody else.

In my Wounds (courtesy of MuseItUp Publishing), Mrs. Ark dusts the furniture with a feather duster. In CSI episodes, the cops dust the furniture for fingerprints.

Students sometimes cut into line and cut out of class.

The soldier was awarded a citation for bravery, and the careless driver was given a citation to appear in court.

Some more common examples are:

Cleave (to cut apart)

Cleave (to seal together)

Buckle (buckle your pants, to hold together)

Buckle (knees buckle, to collapse, fall apart)

Clip (attach to)

Clip (cut off from)

Fast (moving rapidly)

Fast (fixed in position)

Left (remaining)

Left (having gone)

Moot (arguable)

Moot (not worthy of argument)

Oversight (watchful control)

Oversight (something not noticed)

Sanction (a penalty)

Sanction (an approval)

It has been suggested that “literally” can mean both “literally” and “figuratively.” This is one example I do not agree with. I cannot remember ever seeing the word “literally” used to mean “figuratively.” When I have heard it used in this way, I assumed it was an ignorant mistake. I still think so.

We will close this post out at the opposite end by presenting another term sometimes used to describe a word with two opposite meanings: Janus words after the Roman god Janus who has two faces that look in opposite directions.

Do you have a favorite pair of contranyms that have perhaps confused you when you first encountered them? Please share.

8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nancy Stewart
    Jul 11, 2011 @ 08:12:04

    You’ve done it again! This may be my favorite. Isn’t English a marvelous language?


  2. Jayne Moraski
    Jul 11, 2011 @ 09:14:30

    I look forward to your posts…thanks Barbara!


  3. J. Aday Kennedy
    Jul 11, 2011 @ 14:26:03

    Would words people turn into slang?
    Like bad.

    Okay and one I hate, but some kids use isn’t exactly opposite. Would it be one?
    That guy is a total pimp (meaning lady’s man).



  4. Janet Ann Collins
    Jul 11, 2011 @ 17:19:13

    I love this blog! Does that make me a linguaholic?


  5. barbarabockman
    Jul 12, 2011 @ 00:24:53

    Nancy, I agree; English is a marvelous language.

    Jayne, thanks for stopping by.

    J. Aday, I think anyway you cut it, “pimp” is an ugly word.

    Janet Ann, I think I will have to do words coined by my friends. Keep ‘um coming.

    Thanks, All.


  6. Connie Arnold
    Jul 12, 2011 @ 16:54:33

    That’s great! There are quite a few of those in the English language. Just one of the things that make it challenging to learn and write correctly.


  7. barbarabockman
    Jul 12, 2011 @ 23:50:38

    Connie, You are so right. The English language is nothing if not challenging. But what’s so wonderful is that there is no end to the combinations that can be made of it.


  8. Karen Cioffi
    Jul 14, 2011 @ 13:02:56

    Barbara, great tips. So much to keep track of! Thanks for sharing.


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