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April 10, 2013

Contronyms - Words With Opposite Meanings

As if English wasn't difficult enough with its arcane and inconsistent spelling rules, word roots from different languages and always-shifting meanings....

...what are we to make of individual words that have two absolutely contradictory meanings?

They are called contronyms.

Remember that synonyms are words that have essentially the same meaning (cold and chilly, for example) and antonyms (like up and down, cold and hot) have opposite meanings.

But contronyms aren't pairs of words - they are individual words that, depending on the context, can have exactly opposite meanings.

You can see a list of them and examples of their 'double' meanings here - http://www.salon.com/2013/04/07/inside_the_topsy_turvy_world_of_contronyms_partner/.

Perhaps like no other language, the meaning of English words depends on their context – how a word is used.

One word they do not mention is to 'rent' something - does that mean you have an object you are 'renting' from someone or does it mean that you are 'renting' something from someone else?

And if you want to see even more of these, take a look here - http://www.dailywritingtips.com/75-contronyms-words-with-contradictory-meanings/.

And if that wasn't confusing enough, have you ever noticed that virtually all of us 'code switch'?

Code switching is a term used to describe the way we change how we speak based on the situation and the person we are speaking to.

Apparently we all do this. Consider the different tone, vocabulary and grammar we might use when we speak to a boss, a friend, a baby or a pet.

Here is an article that gives examples of how many prominent people do this - http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2013/04/08/176064688/how-code-switching-explains-the-world?utm_source=NPR&utm_medium=facebook&utm_campaign=20130408 .

As you talk to people, listen to others - or even yourself - and see if you can notice the different ways we speak based on how familiar, formal or casual we feel.

I know that I 'switch code' all the time.

Be sure to send us any words, phrases or language usages that puzzle you, 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.


Also: If you'd like to have Morf visit your school or program this summer, you can contact him at mmorf(at)mail.com.

Posted by mmorf at April 10, 2013 10:29 AM


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