Contronym and auto-antonym

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Contronym and auto-antonym are two terms that describe a certain unusual category of words. We will examine the definition of contronym and auto-antonym, where these terms came from, some examples of this type of word as well as some examples of the use of contronym and auto-antonym in sentences.

A contronym or auto-antonym is a word that has two meanings which are the opposite of each other. A contronym or auto-antonym is its own antonym. Contronym is derived from the Latin prefix contra-, meaning against, and onym, meaning name. The word auto-antonym is derived from the Greek prefix auto- meaning self, and antonym. Another word for contronym or auto-antonym is Janus word, named after the Roman god who had two faces.  Some contronyms are formed when a word simply acquires two different, opposing meanings over time. An example of this type of contronym is the word sanction, which may mean to grant approval or may mean to show disapproval by imposing a penalty. This contronym came by its divergent definitions because of differing uses, one based in everyday language and one that is an archaic legal term.

Other contronyms are the result of two different words that sound similar merging at some time in the past. An example of this process is the word cleave, which may mean to separate one thing from another or may mean to cling together. Cleave is derived from the Old English word clēofan which means to split, as well as the Old English word clifian, which means to adhere. At one time the words were pronuounced differently, but over time they became closer in pronunciation and the meanings merged.

Other examples of contronyms include weather, which may mean to wear away or to withstand the effects of a storm; dust, which may mean to cover with dust or to remove dust; fast, which may describe something stable and immovable or something moving quickly; and seed, which may mean to remove seeds or to sow seeds.


Did Mr. Haight knowingly include this word in a puzzle about contronyms, words or phrases that can have two meanings that oppose each other? (The New York Times)

Claydon’s greatest joy, it seems, is in the sculptural equivalent of ‘autoantonyms’ – those rare words that happen to be their own opposites. (Apollo Magazine)