| Peter Klein |
Last year’s post on contronymns — words that are their own antonyms — was one of our most popular. Anu Garg of Wordsmith.org ran a contronymns series this week, featuring cleave, continuance, asperse, copemate, and quiddity.
The series intro contained a few more:
When you sanction a project, do you approve of it or disapprove? Should one be commended for oversight (watchful care) or reprimanded for oversight (error or omission)? When you resign from a job, do you leave it or re-join (re-sign) it?
When a proposal gets tabled, is it being brought forward for discussion or being laid aside? Depends on which side of the pond you’re at. If the former, you’re in the UK; if the latter, you’re in the US.
I call them fence-sitters. They sit on fences, ready to say one thing or its opposite depending on which side they appear at. I’m not talking about politicians. These are words, known by many names: autoantonym, contranym, self-antonym, enantiodromic, amphibolous, janus word, and so on.
Sometimes it’s a result of two distinct words evolving into the same form (cleave from Old English cleofian and cleofan) but often a single word develops a split personality and takes on two contradictory senses. All of us have a bit of yin and yang and these words are no exception. The context usually provides a clue to help us understand the right sense in a given place.