Contrarians

There is an interesting class of words in English called contronyms. They are defined as words that have two contradictory definitions. You might wonder how this happens. There seem to be three different reasons.

The first is that the words are homographs. If you remember your Latin, this comes from the words “homo” for same, and “graph,” which refers to writing, so homographs are words that are written the same, but that’s the only thing they have in common. Contrast this to homophones, meaning same sound but with different meanings. Additionally, the words should have different etymologies. That is, they did not come from the same source words.

A good homographic example of this is the word “cleave,” which can either mean to join together or to split apart. “The bride and groom cleaved onto each other until hard times cleaved them apart.” The former sense comes from the Old English word cleofian, with the same meaning. The latter comes from Old English clēofan, to separate, which actually is a different word despite looking so similar.

The second way contronyms happen is through a form of polysemy, which comes from the Greek for many (poly) signs (semy, the root of semiotics.) [That link is provided for the sake of showing sources, but unless you’re a linguist it will make your head explode trying to read it. —Ed.] The main point to remember is that contronyms can happen as language evolves and a word begins to be used in a different sense by different groups.

Frequently, this refers to technical jargon, although it doesn’t always create contronyms. A good example is the word “insult.” In the medical field, it refers to a physical injury and not nasty words Medically speaking, adding insult to injury would be completely redundant.

A modern example of a contronym created this way is the word “sick” — in one sense, it refers to something that’s not well off: “Javi is feeling very sick today.” In another sense, it means something that’s really excellent: “Javi busted out some sick rhymes to win that rap battle.”

Finally, contronyms can happen when two different versions of the language use words in a different sense. The classic example of this is the word “table” as used in meetings. In American English, when a bill is tabled, that means that it’s removed from discussion and either dropped or put on hold. In British English, when a bill is tabled, that means it’s brought up for debate.

A few fun examples

There are a lot of contronyms, not just in English, but in other languages. Spanish has its own autoantónimos, and some of them even match their English counterparts. For example, rent/alquilar refers to the act of either renting from someone or renting to someone; sanction/sancionar refers to imposing a penalty or officially allowing something.

They can be a lot of fun, so let’s look at a few from a very long list, used together in their opposite meanings, along with some alternate meanings the word might also have.

Bill: When it’s not on a duck, you can pay a bill with a twenty-dollar bill, so this word has your money covered coming and going.

Bolt: When a lightning bolt strikes nearby, you might be inclined to bolt the door fast and stay inside, or you may bolt in fear and run away.

Custom: Everybody had followed exactly the same custom for years: to custom order for the New Year so that everyone’s shoes were completely different.

Dust: After the detectives dusted for prints, I had to dust the furniture to get it all off.

Fast: After a brief fast, I wanted to run away fast, but alas I was held fast because my belt got stuck to the chair.

Garnish: He was a chef who loved to garnish the entrees with parsley and cherry tomatoes, but was very sad after his divorce when his ex got a judge to garnish his wages.

Give out: (a rare two-word contronym!) He gave out his business cards tirelessly until his energy gave out completely.

Left: By the time there was only one bottle of wine left, all of the guests left and walked to the left, disappointed.

Off: Bob the Burglar thought that the alarm was off until he broke inside and set it off.

Out: It wasn’t until all of the lights went out that they could see how many stars were out at night.

Oversight: The oversight committee thought that they had monitored everything, but they realized their big oversight too late to fix it.

Refrain: “I wish you would refrain from singing that,” the teacher demanded, but the students went on and sang the same refrain again and again.

Rock: Joe was always solid and immobile as a rock until someone started to play rock music, at which point he would rock back and forth uncontrollably.

Strike: During the general sports strike, the replacement archers managed to strike the targets every time. Meanwhile, the baseball batters weren’t so lucky, getting strike after strike.

Throw out: (another two-worder!) I’m just going to throw out this idea for everyone to consider, but we really need to throw out the trash.

Trim: Before we can trim the Christmas tree, we really need to trim some of these branches.

Weather: The house had weathered many a winter season until its walls became too weathered to stand any longer.

Wind up: (two-worder number three!) I don’t mean to wind you up, but after you wind up this jack-in-the-box, we really need to wind up the evening and go home.

Why?

Some of the most interesting and fun contronyms lend themselves to neat wordplay, some of which I indulged in above. Since one of the hallmarks of humor is the unexpected, throwing a pair of contronyms into a sentence can be a great tool for spicing up your writing. I would offer an apology for my puns but I think I can write a pretty good apology in support of the concept. And there’s another word with great Greek roots: Apo-, a prefix meaning, among other things, a response or defense; logo, which means word; and –ia, a suffix in Greek indicating either a female singular or neuter plural noun or adjective.

So… words in response to or defense of something. This may sound like a subtle difference, but it’s not. If I offer an apology for my puns, then I’d say something like, “I am really sorry that I’ve made those puns.” If I write an apology for puns, then it would be a long piece tracing their history, showing examples, and describing why they are a valid form of humor — the exact opposite of apologizing for them.

But I won’t apologize for puns. Especially not when a contronym also has other meanings, because that’s where we can get into triple word score on a single sentence.

I mean, I’m not trying to be mean, but I think that puns are a wicked mean form of humor, you know what I mean.

Photo: “Black Sheep Meets White Sheep” (cc) 2011 by Leon Riskin, used unchanged under Creative Commons license 2.0.

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