LINGUIST List 6.74

Fri 20 Jan 1995

Sum: Words that are their own opposites

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  1. Alex Eulenberg, SUM: Words that are their own opposites, pt. 1

Message 1: SUM: Words that are their own opposites, pt. 1

Date: Thu, 19 Jan 1995 19:45:27 SUM: Words that are their own opposites, pt. 1
From: Alex Eulenberg <>
Subject: SUM: Words that are their own opposites, pt. 1

In November, I posted a query about what I referred to as
"auto-antonymy", the semantic state of a word being its own opposite,
either changing its meaning through time or having two opposite meanings
at the same time. An example of the former is "resent" which used to mean
"appreciate" as in the following quotations taken from the Oxford English

1702 C. Mather Magn. Chr. iii. i. iii.
(1852) 309 If she gratefully resented that small thing for
the sake of the hand it came from. 1765 Warburton in W. & Hurd Lett. (1809)
360, I was sure that this instance of his friendship to you would ever be
warmly resented by you. 1829 Webster Lett. (1902) 617, I
shall resent through life (to use an expression of Boyle's)
your unwearied and affecting kindness to me.

A word that has two opposite meanings simultaneously is "fast", which
means steady, not moving, and at high speed.

I asked what the proper term for this phenomenon is, and made a call for
other examples of this phenomenon in English and other languages.
Additionally, I asked whether this a phenomenon that can be rightfully
classed with other regular forms of polysemy (metonymy, metaphor) and
language change, or is it always a curious accident.

Thanks to the kind responses of linguists around the world, I now know
six established names for "auto-antonymy", I have a collection of many
interesting examples, and I have been apprised of a dual phenomenon:
synonyms that look like antonyms. These linguistic riches will be shared
in the following screens.

First, the terminology.

DIRK GEERAERTS writes that the phenomenon "is known in the older
tradition of historical semantics as (antiphrasis) or <enantiosemy>".
MIRIAM SHLESINGER and M. LYNNE MURPHY noted that such words are sometimes
called (Janus words), after the two-faced Greek mythic figure. LARRY
HORN, renowned historian of negation, said the phenomenon had been dubbed
(antilogy) by JOHN TRAIN in his 1980 book "Remarkable Words With
Astonishing Origins. DAVID GAMON offered the term (enantiodromia) for
 :the diachronic process of acquiring an 'opposite' meaning, and I
suppose a
 :word having two such meanings would be an (enantiodrome). I learned this,
 :by the way, from professor MATISOFF here at Berkeley.
BOB FRADKIN noted that Arabic has a word (didh) (plural <addhaadh>) for
"a whole category of words that mean 'itself and its opposite.'"

Frankly, I think that all of these terms -- antiphrasis, enantiosemy,
Janus word, antilogy, enantiodromia (not to mention didh) -- are quite
opaque to the modern English ear, and the word I coined, "auto-antonym"
just says it all, and that's the term I'll use for the remainder of this

Now that I've whetted your appetite for some auto-antonymy, here are the
examples I received:

The top entry, submitted by practically everybody, is the classic example
(cleave) which means to bring together as well as to cut apart. <Splice>
and (clip), mentioned less often, operate the same way. Another popular
word was (sanction), which as a noun means a punitive action and as a
verb means to endorse. (let) is similar, also meaning to allow, but
formerly meaning to prevent. The latter meaning survives in the idioms
"without let or hindrance" and in "a let ball". KEVIN ROTTET notes a
similar phenomenon in French, with the word (defendre) meaning 'to
defend' and 'to prohibit'. Many mentioned "overlook" or "oversight" which
can mean to look at something carefully as well as to miss something.
JANE EDWARDS notes that German translation (versehen) has the same
properties. Speaking of German, BERND MOEBIUS writes:

In German, 'Kontrahent' today means 'opponent' (e.g., often used in
sports) [....] There is, however, the rather uncommon use of 'Kontrahent' for
two parties sharing a contract, like the English 'contractor'.

KAREN BAUMER wins the prize for sending in the most entries. These had
been collected by her colleagues at the Apple Newton project. I give you
a selection of the ones not mentioned previously:

)>>aught = all, nothing
)>>bill = invoice, money
)>>comprise = contain, compose
)>>custom = usual, special
)>>dust = to remove, add fine particles
)>>literally = actually, figuratively
)>>model = archetype, copy
)>>moot = debatable, academic
)>>note = promise to pay, money
)>>peer = noble, person of equal rank
)>>put = lay, throw
)>>puzzle = pose problem, solve problem
)>>quantum = very small, very large (quantum leap)
)>>ravel = entangle, disentangle
)>>resign = to quit, to sign up again
)>>sanguine = murderous, optimistic
)>>scan = to examine closely, to glance at quickly
)>>set = fix, flow
)>>skin = to cover with, remove outer covering
)>>strike = miss (baseball), hit
)>>table = propose [British], set aside
)>>temper = calmness, passion
)>>trim = cut things off, put things on

)>>A very short list of homophones:
)>>aural, oral = heard, spoken
)>>raise, raze = erect, tear down
)>>A pair of French words which can be very confusing:
)>>La symetrie (symmetry) and L'asymetrie (asymmetry).
)>>immo = yes, no

Baumer also notes:
 an example that comes to mind is the word
 'prove,' whose older meaning 'to test' has been pretty much lost, giving
 rise to an apparent paradox in the expression "the exception proves the

There were quite a few examples from Shakespeare.

 (presently) in Shakespeare meant 'immediately' whereas now it means
 immediately but I'll get round to it'.

ROGER HURWITZ reminds us of Shakespeare's (nunnery), which, in the phrase
"get thee to a nunnery" referred not to a place of piety, but a house of
ill repute.

SUE BLACKWELL, pointed me to "As You Like It", wherein Jacques de Boys
complains: "rumination wraps me in a most (humourous) sadness." Not at
all funny. Blackwell adds that (silly) used to mean "blessed".

Here are some examples in other languages that have no parallels in English:

An example from Dutch: "ettelijk". Most native speakers (everybody)
thinks it means "many, much", but the authoritative dictionary (Van
Dale) says it means "(a) little, (a) few". Or at least that is what
the dictionary said 10 or 15 years ago (and our professor of Dutch
used to "catch" us on this one). Now for the sake of this message I
went to look again in a new version of Van Dale and it says both !
See the evolution ?

A Swedish example is the verb "maximera"('maximize'). The traditional
meaning is 'set an upper limit to', but now it is also being used in the
sense 'make as large as possible', probably due to English influence.

There's a strange case in the Sahidic dialect of Coptic: "ehrai" means both
"upwards" and "downwards". The former derives from Egyptian h.ry "upper
part" (in which h. represents a pharyngial fricative), the latter derives
from Egyptian h_ry "lower part" (in which h_ was probably a palatal
fricative). The distinction between h. and h_ was lost in Coptic.
--LANCE ECCLES, Maquarie University, Australia

I think that's enough for now. In a future posting I will summarize the
linguistic wisdom on the REGULARITY of the phenomenon.

--Alex Eulenberg (
--Indiana University
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