23 April 2007 at 10:53 am 22 comments

| Peter Klein |

Re Chihmao’s post: English also has quite a few contronyms, words that are their own antonyms. Here is a list, including these that appear often in business administration and social-science research:

  • consult — ask for advice, give advice
  • custom — usual, special
  • discursive — proceeding coherently from topic to topic, moving aimlessly from topic to topic
  • enjoin — prescribe, prohibit
  • first degree — most severe (e.g., murder), least severe (e.g., burn)
  • handicap — advantage, disadvantage
  • mean — average, excellent (e.g., “plays a mean game”)
  • oversight — error, care
  • rent — buy use of, sell use of
  • transparent — invisible, obvious


Entry filed under: - Klein -, Ephemera.

Theoretical vs. Teórico vs. 理论: How the Precision of Foreign Language Relates to the Cost of Innovation The Growth of Cities: A Formal Model

22 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Paul  |  26 April 2007 at 9:47 am

    Cleave: to cut, to join

    Sanction: to prohibit; to allow

  • 2. howard  |  26 April 2007 at 11:35 am

    to table: to postone the vote on, to call for a vote on.

  • 3. tom s.  |  26 April 2007 at 11:43 am

    moot – irrelevant, or on the table.
    stakeholder – one who has a stake in an issue, or one who has no stake (holds the stakes for those involved in the bet).

  • 4. pedant  |  26 April 2007 at 12:11 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with all of these…

    enjoin: in both cases enjoin means to force, adding “from” or “to” is what creates the contrary meanings.

    rent: i think that technically only the first definition is correct; (also i would have thought that “not buy”, would be the opposite of “buy”, rather than sell.)

    handicap: again, I don’t think this technically ever means advantage. (e.g. In golf a low handicap is an advantage, and if you give someone a handicap, you’re saying “you have a handicap, which I’m going to compensate you for.”)

  • 5. Stephanie  |  26 April 2007 at 12:35 pm

    Pedant, in economics, “rent” means a return on a factor of production beyond usual profit. For example, all farmers in an area might get the same profit from the crops they grow on their land, but the farmer who owns the most fertile land will get a little bit extra because his crops naturally grow better/more plentifully. That farmer holds rent on his land… he can sell the use of his fertile land to someone else (who would “rent” it in the usual sense).

  • 6. REW  |  26 April 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Oversight – observed carefully or not at all

    Shop – I shopped (tried to sell) my advisee to several grad schools, I shopped (tried to buy) for a suit that fits; see rent above

    Transparent — easily seen; invisible

    Dust – to remove dust; to add dust (as in crop dusting and fingerprinting)

  • 7. Steve Waldman  |  26 April 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Sanction — to permit or endorse, to punish.

    These are also sometimes called “autoantonyms” Google that for lots of ’em.

  • 8. Glen  |  27 April 2007 at 1:45 am

    ‘Mean’ can also indicate low quality or status. So that’s a word that covers both ends of the spectrum and the spot in between!

  • 9. James  |  28 April 2007 at 12:04 am

    “Let” originally meant “to hinder or obstruct”, but now means to allow. The noun “let” is an antiquated word meaning an obstruction. This seems particularly close to “sanction”, which has two similar opposite meanings. The old idiom “without let or hindrance”, using let as a noun in the old sense of an impediment, is found on some passports, and was on US passports as recently as the 1980s. Newer US passports have replaced the phrase with “without delay or hindrance”.

  • 10. James  |  28 April 2007 at 12:10 am

    The word “fine” can be used either to describe something that is excellent or that meets a minimum acceptable standard.

  • 11. Ross Parker  |  28 April 2007 at 3:17 am

    “rent — buy use of, sell use of”

    I rent the house from my landlady, who lets it to me.

  • 12. Chris  |  28 April 2007 at 6:34 am

    Maybe your landlady is renting out the house.

  • 13. Pat  |  28 April 2007 at 11:04 am

    continue – to keep doing something; continue – to stop doing something until later, as in a trial

  • 14. Boris  |  1 May 2007 at 6:51 am

    How about “orthonyms”, which are compound words or phrases that reflect none of their constituent parts? Examples: English horn (neither English nor horn), Sweet bread (neither sweet nor bread). Can anyone think of more?

  • 15. Chihmao Hsieh  |  4 May 2007 at 2:03 pm

    It appears from the above that there are very few ‘true’ contronyms, but just now I found one: comprise. According to, without any adjustments it is a verb that can mean either:

    (1) to consist of; be composed of: ‘The advisory board comprises six members.’

    (2) to form or constitute: ‘Seminars and lectures comprised the day’s activities.’

  • 16. Aaron  |  8 May 2007 at 3:17 pm

    Contronyms (a.k.a. auto-antonyms, Janus words) were featured on NPR a few years ago:

    As for orthonyms, “peanut” is a classic example from SNL.

  • 17. K G Johnson  |  3 June 2007 at 2:47 pm

    throw out: to dispose of, to present (e.g., “to throw out a few ideas for discussion.)

    overlook: to watch over, to fail to see

  • 18. K G Johnson  |  3 June 2007 at 2:48 pm

    to go: to be operational, to be defunct

  • 19. K G Johnson  |  3 June 2007 at 2:52 pm

    Finished: to be completed, to be destroyed

  • 20. Word of the Day: Autoantonym or Contronym | Les Jones  |  9 September 2008 at 5:34 pm

    […] at Organizations and Markets. Some of the examples aren’t 100% perfect (custom, for instance), but it’s an […]

  • 21. jcdenton  |  25 July 2019 at 3:40 pm

    “How about “orthonyms”, which are compound words or phrases that reflect none of their constituent parts? Examples: English horn (neither English nor horn), Sweet bread (neither sweet nor bread). Can anyone think of more?”

    Not sure if these technically qualify, but:

    -Cornish game hens: Chickens which are not cornish, not game, and not hens can still qualify as “cornish game hens”.

    -The Holy Roman Empire was not holy or Roman (though I suppose it was an empire).

    -Chilean Sea Bass is not actually a sea bass and is not necessarily Chilean.

  • 22. Peter G. Klein  |  25 July 2019 at 4:20 pm


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