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Autoantonyms

If you have read our antonyms page, you will know that two words with opposite meanings are called antonyms. So autoantonyms are words that are the opposite of themselves!

Auto-antonym has Greek roots meaning a word that is the opposite of itself. They have variously been called contranyms, contronyms, antilogies, Janus words (after the two-faced Greek mythical figure, from which "January" also derives), and enantiodromes.

Below is a list af many such words, and their associated opposite (or near-opposite) meanings. See the bottom of the page for an explanation of how such contradictory meanings can come about.

 adumbrate
  verb
• to clarify
• to cast a shadow over
 aught
  noun
• anything
• nothing
 bill
  noun
• invoice (e.g. in a restaurant)
• money; banknote
 bolt
  verb
• to secure in place
• to dash away suddenly
 bound
  adj./verb
• restrained (e.g. by rope)
• to spring; leap
 buckle
  verb
• to fasten
• to come undone; give way; collapse
 cleave
  verb
• to adhere; stick together
• to cut apart; divide
 clip
  verb
• to fasten together; hold tightly
• to cut apart; cut off (e.g. with shears)
 comprise
  verb
• to contain; include
• to be composed of; consist of
 custom
  adjective
• usual; normal
• special; unique
 dust
  verb
• to remove fine particles from (e.g. when cleaning)
• to sprinkle fine particles onto
 fast
  adverb
• fixed firmly in place
• moving quickly; speedy
 fine
  adjective
• just meets minimum standards; satisfactory
• considerably better than average; excellent
 give out
  verb
• to produce; distribute
• to stop producing; cease functioning
 handicap
  noun/verb
• advantage (e.g. in sport)
• disadvantage; disability
 hold up
  verb
• to support; cope
• to hinder; delay
 impregnable
  adjective
• impossible to enter (e.g. of a fortress)
• able to be impregnated
 lease
  verb
• to lend; rent out
• to borrow; hire
 left
  verb
• departed from
• remaining
 let
  verb
• to allow; grant permission
• to prevent (e.g. "without let or hindrance")
 literally
  adverb
• actually; really
• figuratively; virtually
 model
  noun
• archetype; example
• copy; replica
 moot
  adjective
• debatable; arguable
• academic; irrelevant
 overlook
  verb
• to examine; watch over
• to fail to notice; miss
 oversight
  noun
• watchful care; supervision
• overlooking; omission
 peer
  noun
• an equal; fellow (e.g. classmate)
• a nobleman; person of higher rank
 put
  adj./verb
• to begin to move hurriedly
• stationary (e.g. "stay put")
 put out
  verb
• to generate; produce
• to extinguish; put an end to
 puzzle
  verb
• to pose a problem
• to solve a problem
 quantum
  adjective
• very small (e.g. in Physics)
• very large (e.g. "quantum leap")
 ravel
  verb
• to tangle; complicate
• to disentangle; separate
 rent
  verb
• to lend; lease out
• to borrow; hire
 resign
  verb
• to quit; give up
• to sign up again
 root
  verb
• to remove completely
• to become firmly established
 sanction
  verb/noun
• to endorse; authorise
• a punitive action
 sanguine
  adjective
• murderous
• cheerfully optimistic
 scan
  verb
• to examine closely
• to glance at hastily
 screen
  verb
• to view; show
• to conceal; shield
 seed
  verb
• to remove seeds from
• to add seeds to
 set
  verb
• to fix in place
• to flow; move on
 shank
  noun
• latter part of a period of time
• early part of a period of time
 skin
  verb
• to cover with a skin
• to remove the skin
 splice
  verb
• to join together
• to cut in two
 strike
  verb
• to miss (e.g. in baseball)
• to hit; collide with
 table
  verb
• to propose; suggest
• to postpone; shelve
 temper
  verb
• to soften; mollify
• to strengthen (e.g. a metal)
 trim
  verb
• to cut pieces off (e.g. fingernails)
• to add to; ornament
 weather
  verb
• to withstand; stand up to
• to wear away
 wind up
  verb
• to start; prepare
• to end; conclude

The Origin of Autoantonyms

Bob Fradkin explains how one of the major classes of auto-antonym comes about:

Dust is part of a series of noun-verb conversions related to coverings of things. If the noun gives a covering that is natural to the thing, then the verb means remove the covering. If the covering is imposed, the verb means put the covering on.

So you get shell an egg, peel a banana, but paint the furniture, wax the floor.

Dust is interesting because it can go either way: dust the furniture (a sort of natural covering to be removed) vs. dust the crops (put stuff on them that they didn't have and wouldn't unless humans put it there). I mentioned this in my English grammar book Stalking the Wild Verb Phrase.

Related page: What is an antonym?

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