« Where New Words Come From - Romnesia | Main | "Litter On A Stick" - A New Political Term »

October 26, 2012

Contradictory Words

In my introductory English classes I talk about homonyms (words with the same pronunciation but different meaning, like bare and bear), synonyms (words with very similar meanings, like cool and chill) and...

...antonyms (words that are clear opposites, like hot and cold or up and down).

This is confusing enough, but then there is the category that is stranger still.

This would be the category of the same word that itself has opposite meanings or uses depending on the context.

Sound confusing? Yes.

Here are a few examples.

If I say something 'goes off' do I mean it explodes (like fireworks 'going off') goes on (like an alarm clock 'going off') or do I mean something like some some mechanism turning itself off after being on?

These can be called antilogies, auto-antonyms, contronyms and even Janus words (from the two faced Roman symbol for drama - tragedy and comedy ). They are words which have contradictory meanings based on how they are used in a sentence.

Here are some more examples.

The British and American armies fought with the German army during WW2...
The British fought with the Americans during WW2...

In these examples, 'fight with' can mean 'against' or the exact same term can mean to fight alongside.

To 'clip' for example, can mean to cut off or it can mean to fasten together.

'Left' can mean someone or something is gone, or it can mean someone or something remains. I could say "Who just left the party?" or I could say "Who is left to play another round of cards?"

'Screen' can mean to show and to conceal. We cold speak of 'screening' a film or 'screening' off a private garden.

The English language is full of words like this. Be sure to send us any words you think of that are used in this way.

I confess to being an unrepentant word nerd, and I love the many possibilities and contradictions in a language as flexible and fluid as English - especially the always-unpredictable American version.

Send us any words or phrases that make you crazy and be sure to let us know what it is about English and language learning that you find confounding, infuriating or endlessly intriguing.

Listen, read and speak. Make your new language your own.

My best to you as you make your way through this intriguing , constantly shifting linguistic landscape.


Posted by mmorf at October 26, 2012 07:02 PM


It's a pleasure to find someone who can think so clealry

Posted by: Lorren at November 23, 2012 01:55 AM

Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)