It’s a wonder that anyone learns English – with all its strange spellings and pronunciations that defy all the rules, and its huge vocabulary of words with multiple and subtle meanings – not to mention some regional accents that can make it almost impossible to decipher. (I’m a Brit, and I can’t understand a Glaswegian talking fast.)
And not helping the cause are those evil identical twins that can trip up even the natives: the confusing contranym. As defined by Wikipedia, this is a word with a homograph (a word of the same spelling) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). Incidentally, even the word contranym has at least three synonyms (“auto-antonym”, “antilogy” and “enantiodrome”), an alternative spelling (“contronym”), and a poetic nickname after a Roman god (“Janus word”); just as the Eskimos need lots of words for snow, so do we English-speakers need many words to name our many words … The only way of determining a contranym’s meaning at any given time is by its context: the more scant or murky the language surrounding it, the more likely it is to cause communication havoc. At least Mandarin gives its synonyms (and contranyms) musical clues (ie. different tones assigned to different meanings) to help move the conversation along; we Brits have to rely on our linguistic prowess to get our point across.
Below are some of the more common examples of contranyms. I thought of a slightly obscure one today that I had never realized before was a contranym (even though I’ve been using both meanings for as long as I can remember). Here’s a clue: the name of this blog …
And I wondered on a recent morning commute whether there’s another contranym coming down the pike: right now the second meaning is in its colloquial infancy, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see this definition getting a dictionary entry in the not-too-distant future. The clue for this word is what I was doing when I started wondering about it …
While we’re on the subject: when you suggest something to your teenager and she tells you she’s “down”, or that your idea is “sick”, rejoice! Contranym slang is the new teen-speak!
And finally, back to the words with many meanings: can you think of an English word that has up to 26 meanings as a verb (two of which are admittedly obsolete) and 29 meanings as a noun?
bound (bound for Chicago, moving); bound (tied up, unable to move)
cleave (to cut apart); cleave (to seal together)
buckle (buckle your pants — to hold together); buckle (knees buckled — to collapse, fall apart)
citation (award for good behavior); citation (penalty for bad behavior)
clip (attach to); clip (cut off from, excerpt)
cut* (get into a line) cut* (get out of a class)
dust (remove dust); dust (apply dust — fingerprints)
fast (moving rapidly); fast (fixed in position)
handicap (disability, disadvantage); handicap (advantage given to a competitor to equalize chances of winning)
left (remaining); left (having gone)
moot (arguable) ; moot (not worthy of argument, purely academic)
oversight (watchful control) ; oversight (something not noticed)
overlook (ignore, miss, fail to notice); overlook (look down upon, afford a view of)
* American usage