LINGUIST List 6.108

Wed 25 Jan 1995

Sum: Words that are their own opposites (part 2)

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  1. Alex Eulenberg, Words that are their own opposites (part 2)

Message 1: Words that are their own opposites (part 2)

Date: Wed, 25 Jan 1995 19:27:13 Words that are their own opposites (part 2)
From: Alex Eulenberg <>
Subject: Words that are their own opposites (part 2)

In my last summary (Linguist 6.74) I listed a collection of what I call
auto-antonyms -- words that have two opposite meanings. For example, to
"clip" may mean to cut a little piece off, or to put a little piece on.
To "look over" may mean careful scrutiny or that you missed an important
detail. Sometimes the antonymy may be historical: "nice" used to denote
an unpleasant quality.

In that summary, I promised a discussion of whether any generalities
could be made about such pairs. Are they regularly motivated, or always a

I'm still editing the responses to that question. Meanwhile, here are
more auto-antonyms that got left out of last post:

One auto-antonym that I seem to have overlooked in preparing my post,
although I remember looking it over many times before, is "moot", which
at once means "suitable for debate" and "not worth discussing".

impregnable: able to impregnated or inable to be pregnated, as JOEL
HOFFMAN points out.

cope(s)mate: used to mean antagonist and now means partner or comerade,
says ARIADNA SOLOVYOVA, who got the word off of ANU GARG's A.Word.A.Day
mailing list. It turns out that they were having a week celebrating
"fence-setters", evidently another term for what I've been calling

BRUCE NEVIN reminds us of an intercontinental auto-antonym pair: "public
school" in Britain is "private school" in the USA and vice versa.

infer: historically (and now, informally) this means "imply" as well.

rent, lease: several pointed out to me that these means both lend and
borrow. In addition, DAN MYERS wrote to tell me that Chinese operates
similarly with respect to this pair, and WOLFGANG LIPP notes a similar
auto-antonymy to represent "give" and "take" in pronunciation (shou4) but
not in writing.

learn/teach: in "sub"-standard english, these two meanings fuse into
"learn", as they do in standard Russian "uchit'"

Here are some of my personal favorites that I left out of the first summary:

sensitive: this may describe either someone with profound understanding
for the feelings of others, and tolerates differences of opinion (thus
"sensitivity training" for group leaders) as well as a paranoid who
doesn't listen to what people are really saying, and decides to take
everything as a personal insult.

hole/whole: Spelled the first way, an entire absence of matter; the
second, entire presence.

This reminds me of "pit" which can be either a hollow or the stone of a

Which reminds me of "seeded" oranges (insert your favorite fuit here) --
oranges with seeds (as opposed to navel oranges, which have no seeds), OR
oranges that have had their seeds removed.

If you think you're beginning to see some patterns here, you're not
alone! As I said, I've received a few theories on the ultimate essence of
auto-antonymy, historical, psychological, and sociological approaches.
These theories show that auto-antonymy comes about for a variety of
reasons. In a short while, I'm going to put up a summary of these
theories. Then, I'll briefly cover related linguistic phenomena, such as
words with synonyms that look suspiciously like antonyms:
flammable/inflammable, ravel/unravel.

Oh, and by the way, it turns out I was not the first to come up with the
term "auto-antonym." DENNIS BARON informs me that he used the term
"autoantonymy" on page 73 of his 1989 book /Declining Grammar and Other
Essays on the English Vocabulary/.

--Alex Eulenberg (
--Indiana University
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