Sunday, July 11, 2010

Is it original?

Homonyms, acronyms, synonyms and antonyms....Just when you thought you’d figured you had them all sorted out, they come along with another category - contronyms. Some of you are shaking your heads and saying “tell me about it !“ and well, actually ‘tell me about it’ is a kind of contronym phrase. (Do you mean , 'I know all about it', or ' tell me what you mean' ?)

Contronyms are self-contradictory words . They are words that are their own antonyms, and they pop up all through our English language. They are not just pairs of words that sound the same and yet are spelled differently, ( having opposite meanings) like raise and raze or accept and except, but words that are actually spelled the same and by some weird evolution of our mother tongue turn out to possess two completely opposite meanings.

I first ran into the phenomena some years ago on a job where after weeks of restoring what was left of an old wall near Brooklin, Ontario, as we were just completing the work based on an old photo we had been given, a man came by and nodded towards the wall and asked if it was 'original'.

I didn't know how to answer him.

I began to pay attention, and started to notice other words that possessed this same bizarre quality of being their own antonym. For example the word 'bolt'. Is it to 'make immovable' or to 'move quickly' ?

Once I learned the proper name given to these words I discovered there were actually whole web sites devoted to contronyms. There were lists posted on the internet of words with completely contradictory meanings . I learned about obvious ones that I had somehow never thought about like ‘with’ - as in "I fought ‘with’ him at Gettysburg."

There were words like ‘left’ and ‘strike’ and ‘dust’ and 'reservation' (what you make when you know you want to go, and what you have when you are pretty sure you don't want to go). Some of these websites where organized so you could submit new words for eligibility in the growing list of posted covntonyms. I actually had one word accepted on one of these web sites. It was a word they overlooked. It was the word 'overlooked'. My example was... 'One of the first requirements, if they were going to buy a property was to find one with a beautiful dry stone wall on it. Later, they were prepared to overlook it.'

My wife is very disturbed by contronyms. She is the daughter of an English professor and believes words, though rich and complex in meaning, should by definition never have within their definition, their own opposite meaning. She gets very irritable when I come up with new examples of words with diametrically opposed meanings . These words seem to suggest a sinister parallel universe of flawed reality.

I sometimes bring the subject of contronyms up in social gatherings, like the time a few Christmases ago when I was actually explaining the contronym concept (contraception?) to someone while Christmas carols were being sung in another room, and someone shouted out ‘let's sing the refrain again.’ Refrain? (do it again or stop doing it?) hmmm.
Like searching for remnants of original dry stone ruins hidden somewhere off in the forest, I am always ‘on the alert’ for contronyms wherever they lurk unsuspected in the unconcious regions of the English language. It is fun to try to recognize a new one when it suddenly just shows up out of nowhere. I invite you to start your hunt for more of these sly elusive potentially, completely ambiguous words.
I will leave you with one of my recent favorites. The word ‘missed’ – as in 'I never missed reading my friend's blog.' Hopefully I have merely wetted your appetite for the subject. Fortunately, or not, 'You can't say too much about contronyms.'

And for that reason 'Contronyms Part Two' will be posted tomorrow.


  1. Could this be related to the Tao Te Ching's discourse on the use of opposites in language? I have spent much of my adult life trying to understand it. Sometimes I get it and then I lose the concept.

  2. I'm not sure Ches. I wonder if other languages contain any, or as many, contronyms as our own English language does? Perhaps someone with a knowledge of Chinese could help us.