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'That's not what I meant': Contronyms

01:00 Sun 20th Jan 2002 |

Q. Contro-what

A. Nyms, as in the suffix meaning 'name', found in other words such as synonym, antonym, eponym, anonymous, etc.

Q. So

A. A contronym is a word which is its own opposite. These are also known as autoantonyms (their own antonym, or opposite) and Janus-faced or Janus words.

Q. Janus

A. Janus, in Roman tradition, was a spirit of doorways and archways, and was depicted as having two faces, one facing forward and one back. Hence...

Q. How did these contrary words come about

A. Some are the result of parallel development from different roots, while others - far and away the most common - have split their meaning at a later date. The best example of the former is the verb 'to cleave', which means both 'to adhere' and 'to separate'. Pretty awkward. The modern word is actually from two different - albeit similar - Anglo-Saxon words, cleofan and cleofian respectively, but by changes in pronunciation, these words have evolved an identical current form.

Q. How about a few examples

A. You want a list OK, here are some:

below par: excellent (golf score); poor peformance

bolt: to secure; to dart away

buckle: fasten together; collapse

clip: fasten;�speed

critical: opposed; essential to

down hill: worsening; easy (task)

dust: remove material from; sprinkle material on

fast: firmly in one place; move rapidly

hold up: support; hinder

inscient: ignorant; having secret or inward knowledge

left: departed from; remaining

mate: sexual partner; friend (often) of the same sex

oversight: careful supervision; neglect

put out: generate; extinguish

qualified: competent; only limited (success)

quite: completely; to a partial extent

rock: a sure foundation; tilting movement

sanction: give approval to; censure

screen: display; hide from view

seeded: with seeds; without seeds

temper: moderate; strengthen

trim: added decoration; cut away

trip: to stumble; skip along happily

vapulate: to flog; to be flogged

wear: endure; wear down

weather: withstand; wear away

wind up: start (clock); finish

with: alongside; (fight) against

Confusing when you think about it, but, common words though many of these are, we are rarely caused any great difficulty by them in our day-to-day business. Which must say something...

See also the answerbank articles on acronyms and�eponyms

For more on Phrases & Sayings click here

By Simon Smith

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