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Contronyms: A Janus personality

| August 5, 2021 1:00 AM

English is so weird.

Why is it a river is fast when it moves quickly, yet something held fast is actually stuck?

How is it possible to permit a behavior by sanctioning it, then turn around and impose a sanction as punishment?

It’s because they’re contronyms. Merriam Webster Dictionaries defines contronym as a word with two meanings that contradict one another. A.k.a. the antagonym, the autoantonym, also known as a Janus word.

You remember Janus, the two-faced one at the gate in Roman mythology. Gazing at both entrance and exit.

There’s no particular reason contronyms have two faces; they just do. Over time and with usage somehow we added a new context for a word, morphing into its virtual opposite. Most of the time, native speakers are so used to it we hardly notice.

Unless you’ve noticed these:

Cleave can mean cut in half (e.g., meat) and describe sticking together. A sanguine, derived from the Latin root meaning blood, person is hotheaded or bloodthirsty. Yet sanguine’s primary definition is calm and optimistic.

You can buckle a belt by fastening it, or you can buckle under pressure by falling apart.

Likewise, a bolt keeps things in place, while to bolt means flee.

Dusting a shelf gets rid of it, but dusting a cake adds sugar.

A counselor might enjoin (instruct) a couple to communicate better, but a court can enjoin (prevent) a stalker from getting close.

Isn’t it odd that renting means both buying and selling the lease?

A custom is a common thing in culture and custom-made is unique.

People screen (conceal) faces from the sun with high-SPF lotion. Yet theaters show new movies by screening them.

What’s left remains, but if you’ve left, you’re gone.

Why do we begin by executing a plan, yet bring about end by a sadder execution?

Sometimes contronyms are two words. The bank gives out freebies by providing them at promotion time, and when the supply gives out, they have to stop.

To hold up a ceiling is to support it, and to hold up construction is to impede it.

You start an old-fashioned toy by winding it up, and I wind up this monotonous column by stopping here.


Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email