Appendix:English contranyms

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This is a list of contranyms in English. A contranym or contronym is a word which has two or more generally accepted meanings in the English language that directly or generally contradict each other. Such words are also known as antagonyms, auto-antonyms, and words having self-contradictions. New items are collected in Category:Contranyms by language. Many such contra-definitions arise from slang usage. Others develop as a result of their frequent use in sarcasm.

A similar concept, where a commonly used phrase contains two words which have or can be construed to have definitions in opposition to each other is known as an oxymoron.

There are two forms of contranyms: homographic, where two words with the same spelling can have opposing definitions; and homophonic, where two words with the same pronunciation can have opposing definitions. In general, the terms below are both homographic and homophonic contranyms.

Richard Lederer included a list of self-contradicting words in a chapter on Janus-faced words in his book Crazy English.[1]

Contents: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Homophonic contranyms[edit]

These phonetic examples are contranyms under different spellings:

countable / beyond countable
build up / cut down
without petals / with petals
pertaining to the mouth or speech / pertaining to the ears
authorize / prohibit

Homographic contranyms[edit]

These examples are contranyms for different pronunciations:

(two pronunciations) cease working for / continue working for


These examples have both the same spelling and pronunciation:


(1) To disclose; (2) To obscure[2]
(1) A military advance; (2) A difficult and dangerous military retreat[3]
(1) recurring every year; (2) (botany) only lasting a single year [4]
(1) An admission of error accompanied by a plea for forgiveness; (2) A formal defense or justification (as in Plato's Apology), also referred to as an apologia [5]
(1) Anything; (2) Zero, nothing [6]
(1) Originally used as a term to mean full of awe, a synonym of awesome; (2) now means something exceptionally bad.


back up
(1) To retreat; (2) to give support, therefore holding your ground.
(1) Undesirable or unpleasant; (2) (informally) desirable or fashionable.
(1) prohibited, obstructed the passage of; (2) admitted to the bar, allowed to practice law.
(1) Primarily British: in advance of ("the future is before us"). In American English, the phrase would typically be "The future is ahead of us."; (2) at an earlier time, previously ("our forefathers came before us")[7]
(1) A flat piece of land; (2) an artificial ridge of land. [8]
(1) A medium of money (e.g. "a $10 bill"); (2) a medium of money owed (e.g. "a bill for $10").
(1) To fasten into a fixed position or place; (2) to leave one's current place rapidly, with great acceleration. Similar contrary meanings to 'bound', 'buckle', and 'fast'.
Success; failure.
(1) an adjective describing bones (as in "big-boned"); (2) (culinary) an adjective, based on the past tense of the verb "bone", meaning that bones have been removed (as in a "boned chicken"); a synonym of deboned.
Not actually a case of a contronym, but a homonym. Webster's has six separate entries for "bound". The first is a synonym for "going", as in college-bound or hellbound, from Germanic buan. The fourth is based on the past tense of "bind", where one is held in place, and not going at all, from Germanic bintan. [9] Note also: moving e.g. homeward bound and unable to move e.g. housebound.
A success or a failure in the thought process.
An opportunity; a problem.
(1) Without any money, penniless; (2) broke off, rich, wealthy.
(1) To secure, tighten, hold (by fastening with a buckle); (2) to collapse after being acted upon by an external force, as in "to buckle under the strain" [10]


A means of payment; an invoice requiring payment at a restaurant (Check, please!).
In British slang this has come to mean "pleased", synonymous to "puffed up"; an older definition, also colloquial is "displeased, upset". Specifically, "chuff" is the sound of exhaust being emanated, as from a train engine.
(1) "Cold enough to cause discomfort; feeling uncomfortably cold". (2) An alternative spelling of chili.
A commendation; a condemnation.
This is a homophone, where two words, spelled and pronounced alike, have different origins. (1) "To adhere firmly", from Old English clifian. (2) to split (as with a cleaver), from Old English cleofan [11]
This is a homophone. (1) "to clasp or fasten with a clip", is from Anglo-Saxon clyppan. (2) "to cut or cut off" (with clippers or scissors) is from Old Norse klippa.
The beginning; the end.
To consist of; to constitute.
(1) Following as an effect, result, or conclusion; consequent. (2) Having important consequences; significant.
To give advice; to receive advice.
In regard to calories, one can consume them by ingesting them, or by expending them.
Contemporary alone means "modern", but with a reference point it may also mean "at a specific time in the past".
The verb continue means "to keep doing"; however the noun form continuation, in legal usage, means "to pick up later", particularly in the form continuance.
In commonly accepted slang, cool means happy, pleasant, agreeable; but when referring to a personal interaction, especially in politics, it usually means "less than agreeable" or "polite but strained" (he received a cool reception to his speech).
could care less
This malapropism of the expression "couldn't care less" is often used with its meaning of "not to care at all"; however literally it means "to care at least somewhat".
Can mean "vital to success" (a critical component), or "disparaging" (a critical comment).[10]
As a noun, this means "conventional behavior"; but as an adjective, it means "specially designed".


To purify; to make impure.
To leave uncounted/unchecked, OR counting off/down of a price.
In essay structure, it can mean: (1) to be rambling or freeform (American usage); (2) to be strictly structured (British usage).
As a past tense verb, disposed means "removed" or "gotten rid of"; as an adjective; disposed means "available".
To be down on something is to feel unfavorably disposed toward it, but to be down with it, or down for it, is to feel neutrally or positively disposed toward it.
When referring to difficulty, it means "progressively easier"; but when referring to status or condition, it means "progressively worse".[10]
When referring to a film or video or especially an advertisement, it can either mean that it has been abolished, cancelled or withdrawn from circulation, or that it has been published or released into circulation.
As a verb, "to dust" can mean either "to remove dust from" (as in "dusting furniture") or "to add dust to" (as in "dusting a cake with powdered sugar"); also commonly used to refer to "dusting for fingerprints."[10]
Ditch dug for irrigation, or flood defence built from material dug from ditch.


Adjective meaning outstandingly bad or shocking; in a different context it can mean remarkably good.
As an adjective, it can either mean "one or the other of two", as in "you either passed or failed your test" or "each of two; the one and the other" as in "there are trees on either side of the river".
Can mean either "long lasting" or "suffering through". In some context this can lead to antonymic word play, as Noam Chomsky pointed out in connection with George W. Bush's name for the war in Afghanistan: "Enduring Freedom".
A verb meaning "instruct" or "command" can be used as "to require" or "to forbid," as in a judicial order -- not really an autoantonym, but fun just the same. Notice that "instruct" and "command" could as easily be pressed into the same service.
Current use, applied to a future event or occurrence, means "inevitable, given enough time": "His eventual appointment to the Board..." An older usage, applied in the same situation, means "possible, subject to contingencies".
To execute a person is to end their life; to execute a program is to start it [Note: This contradiction arises from a shift in meaning of execution in the sense of capital punishment; what is being executed is technically the sentence of death (i.e. it is being started, just like starting a program), but the usage has shifted away from the sentence and to the prisoner]. [RLC 19 July 2007]


A factoid is a false claim that spreads through unreliable mass media, which is the traditional meaning, or an interesting and true bit of trivia.
Fast can mean either "to move or do quickly" or it can mean "not to move," as in "holding fast". As an adjective, it can also convey both meanings: "The rabbit is fast;" "The door is fast."[10]
Fearful can mean either "causing fear" or "[being] full of fear"[12].
Similar to "fearful", "fearsome" can also mean either "causing fear" or "inclined to fear" [13].
Fine can mean either "of superior quality", or (informally) "acceptable or satisfactory".
Fix can mean either "to mend" or it can mean "to break", as in "I'll fix you". (It can also mean to render an animal infertile, which relates to the latter.)
Flank can either mean to protect the sides of something or to attack the flanks.
Free can mean "without" OR "access available" and/or "costless". Also "free" can also be readily (or unwillingly)taken OR can choose not to be taken.
Fulsome can mean offensively flattering or insincere, or abundant or copious.


With food, the verb means "to add to"; with wages, it means "to take from". (Strictly speaking, though, the intention of the latter is to mean something added to the charges against the wages, alongside insurance, taxes, etc.)
Usually true, but also subject to exception. The meaning "all-inclusive, without exception" is now obsolete, except in mathematics, where it still occasionally causes confusion.


A hack can be a clever, ingenious solution; or an ugly, temporary one.
Advantage (e.g. in sport) or disadvantage/disability.[14]
Either barely just, or with extreme power.
Tremendous, remarkable; extremely unpleasant, dreadful.
"To separate" as well as "to stick (to)" (when used with "to"); cf. "cleave" above.
hoi polloi
The ordinary people; or the fancy or rich people, the elite.
hold up
To hold up can mean to support or aid, or to hinder or impede.


(1) Strongly affected; (2) without passion or feeling.
(1) Impossible to enter; (2) able to be entered and impregnated.
incorporate (adjective)
1) having a body, having been incorporated; 2) having no body; incorporeal.
(1) Flammable; (2) nonflammable.
To injoint can mean to separate, or to join. (Both meanings are obsolete.)


just now
(1) A moment ago (past); (2) Now (in the present); (3) (Scotland, South Africa) In a little while (future).


kick off
(1) To start, launch, become active or angry; (2) to stop/die/quit.


(1) To lend; (2) to borrow.
As a past tense verb, it means "to have gone"; as an adjective; it means "remaining".
As a verb usually means "allow"; in an older (but not obsolete) sense it means "prevent".
like hell
With one's utmost power and effort ("to run like hell"); or not at all ("like hell I did!").
In addition to the standard meaning of "word for word", "not figuratively", this has long had an additional, informal usage as a general intensifier for figurative statements.
Discolored as from a bruise or ashen with shock or dull blue or grayish-blue; reddish or flushed or enraged or furiously angry.
Can mean either pale or glowing with color.


It can mean ordinary, neither good nor bad; or rather poor or inferior.
Formerly and more acceptably meaning "open for discussion, debatable", it is now more commonly used to mean "irrelevant to discussion or debate".
It can mean to move quickly; or to move leisurely.


Nerveless can mean fearful and lacking courage, or calm and controlled.
It can mean so surprised and confused that one is unsure how to react or not disconcerted, unperturbed.[15]


Generally, something being off means it is not operating; however when an alarm goes off, it means it has started operating (or when a person goes off, it means they have become very agitated).
Original either means plain, or unchanged (as in original flavour), or it could mean something creative or new (an original idea).
Similar to off, to take something out means to remove it; but to bring something out is to exhibit it prominently. For instance saying that "the lights are out" means they are not shining, but saying "the stars are out" means they are easily visible.
Exceptional, prominent, excellent; but also unsettled, unresolved, overdue.
(1) To watch closely; (2) to fail to notice.
When used as an adjective, it means the subject in question possesses more power than expected. But if used as a passive verb, it is a form of "overpower," meaning that the subject has been defeated by a greater power.
When used as a general concept, this word is the noun form of oversee, which means "to manage and be in charge of". But when used to refer to a specific incident, it becomes the noun form of overlook, meaning "error" or lapse in proper management.[10]


As a verb, "to pants someone" can mean to either to apply pants to or to remove them from their body.
Although considered an error by most usage experts, the word peruse is commonly understood to mean "to skim over" or "to glance at". The accepted definition is "to examine closely".[16]
[idiomatic] To discard. Also, to promote. A headline from the edition of January 6, 2009, reading "Obama Pitches Stimulus Plan" is ambiguous, though the "promote" meaning is intended.
Having pits; (culinary) having pits removed. "Pitted olives" do not contain pits, but the labeling confuses some customers.
Its older meaning is "immediately"; its contemporary meaning is "in a while".
Usually it refers to something so valuable that no price can be set; but it can also mean worthless.
As a noun, it refers to the common people of a society; however as an adjective, it normally refers to things operated by the government. (Of course, such government operations are maintained for public use. Furthermore, under representative democracy, the people and the government are considered one and the same by definition.) [17]. In the UK, the term public school refers to a type of private school.
put out
To put out can be to create or produce (the lantern puts out light), or to extinguish (put out the flame) or injure.


Can mean "limited" (as in "qualified success"); or "skilled, skilful" (as in "a qualified expert").
quantum leap
In technical usage, the smallest measurable increment; informally, a radical change.
Can mean either the essence of a thing, or a quibble.


Can mean "to wrap or twist together" (e.g. "Out of boredom, my wife ravels her hair into huge knots"); or "to separate or undo the texture of" (e.g. "My son uses tweezers to ravel stubborn knots in his hair")[18]
Can mean "marked by reflection" or "characterized by habitual, unthinking behavior"[19]
Can be used to mean cancel, or to send money as a payment or gift.
Can be used to mean paying to use something, as in "I'm renting an apartment", or used to mean taking money to let someone else something of yours, as in "We rent cars to anyone, no questions asked."[10]
Can mean "to restore to a former place or position" (e.g. "I replaced the old rug after washing it"), or "to put something new in the place of" (e.g. "I replaced the old rug with a new one"). Ambiguous sentence: "When the brakes are worn-out, take them out and replace them."
Can mean "to cast an actor in the same role again" or "to replace one actor in a role with another".
As a concrete noun, this can be "a confirmation" of availability; as an abstract noun, it is "a fear or uncertainty".
When someone resigns a contract (transitive) he commits to continuing his involvement in some activity. On the other hand, when he resigns (intransitive) he relieves himself of that commitment. The former is sometimes hyphenated (i.e. re-sign) to emphasize its pronunciation and differentiate the pair. For example, to resign from work is to end the work, while to resign oneself to work is to give up all hope of ending the work. You can resign yourself to an idea which means you accept it. For example, he resigned himself to the fact his dog had died and was never coming back.
Can mean overuse of the letter R, or the inability to pronounce it.


"To permit"; or "to restrict" (as in "economic sanctions").[10]
"Bloody, blood-thirsty"; or "hopeful, optimistic".
Originally, this word meant "to examine closely"; but has come to mean "to look over hastily".
Conceal with or as if with a screen; or "to display prominently" as in screening a film.
Usually obvious due to context; but this can mean either "hidden" (secreted away), or "exposed" (secreted from a wound). The former is the verb form of "secret", and is pronounced with the emphasis on the first syllable. The latter is the past tense of "secrete" and is pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable. (This would not be a contronym, but a homograph, where two words from different roots are spelled the same, but pronounced differently.)
Worldly, not eternal; or, lasting for many years [20]
To plant a field, or to clean seeds from a fruit.[10]
With seeds; or without seeds.
can mean to fix in place or to move (e.g. in set out)
Originally meaning "separate, single, or individual" (as in "the several states" referred to in the US Constitution), it is now understood to mean "plural, more than two".
To put into a shed (as in "I'm going to shed the lawnmower for the winter"), or to remove (as in "the snake shed its skin").
Shelled can describe either the result of removing a shell (e.g., we shelled the hazelnuts) or describe something that has a shell (e.g., turtles are like shelled snakes with legs) or describe the act of adding shells (e.g., the battleship shelled the island city).
In the standard usage, this means "something that is strikingly attractive or has great popular appeal". Recent usage particularly in the computer industry means "something catastrophic" (often a bug that makes an implementation effectively unusable).[21]
Used with a standard definition, this word can mean "disgusted; revolted", but used colloquially, it can mean "very pleasant; agreeable".
A color word that can mean either green or red, depending on usage.
To add skin (e.g. "skin that kayak"), or to remove it (e.g. "skin that deer").
To work like a slave; drudge or to engage in the slave trade; procure, transport, or sell slaves.
Historically and legally means to hold (but not have an interest in) a stake; however, the term is now sometimes used, especially re corporate governance, to reference one who does have an interest in an issue.
Can mean stopping an action ("stay the execution"), or to continue an action ("stay the course" - note: the original meaning of the phrase "stay the course" was in the first sense; that is, to stop the course of action).
To make headway on something (e.g. "if the wind will only die down, we shall be able to stem the first of the flood"), or to restrict something (e.g. "we need to stem the bleeding").
Normally meaning "to hit", in baseball it means "to miss", and an extension of this usage has led to the meaning "to make a mistake". Further adding to the contradiction, in bowling it refers to the best possible play. Another contradiction results with the phrase strike out: the baseball lineage leads to the meaning "to run out of hope"; but the original lineage also leads to the meaning "to start pursuing a desire".


(1) To raise an issue for discussion (more common in the UK); (2) to lay an issue aside and discontinue discussion (more common in the US).
take care of
(1) To help or nurture (nurse takes care of patients); (2) to neutralize or destroy (exterminator takes care of stink bugs).
take the cake
(1) To be especially good or outstanding; (2) To be particularly bad, objectionable, or egregious.
As an adjective, it can mean either "having aimed at" (targeted missile strikes) or "being aimed at" (targeted civilian settlements).
(1) To comb; (2) to back-comb.
(1) To soften or mollify; (2) to strengthen (e.g. a metal).
(1) Formidable; (2) lousy.
Originally and still used to mean "inducing terror", but has now come to have a positive connotation as well, meaning "fantastic" or "amazing".
throw out
Can mean either to "to discard" something or "to offer an idea".
Can mean either "to remove the top of" or "to put a top on".
Can mean "to add decoration to" (trim the (Christmas) tree); or "to remove from" (trim the bushes).
A fluid effortless motion; or the act of falling due to an unforeseen obstacle.
As an adjective, 'hard to endure'; as a verb, 'to make an effort'. A teacher's report may say, "Your child is trying". [22]


Rigid, inflexible, refusing to yield or compromise, as in "his stance against reform was unbending"; or becoming less tense, relaxing, as in "unbending a little, she confided..."
That can be unfolded; or not capable of being folded.
Capable of being disentangled (unraveled); or impossible to disentangle (ravel: unwind, pull apart).
Not removed from their shells (adjective); or having been removed from their shells (the past tense and past participle of "to unshell"). The ambiguity therefore arises when the adjective is used predicatively, as in "The eggs were unshelled", which can mean "The eggs had not been removed from their shells" or "The eggs were removed from their shells" (someone unshelled them).


(1) A small locked box; (2) the expanse of the heavens.


To weather a storm means "to endure" the storm; but generally to weather means "to decay".[23]
The strict definition of the adjective is "evil"; the now generally accepted slang usage (barring regional quirks) is roughly equivalent to "very good".
wind up
(1) To start; (2) to finish.
Can mean 'against' or 'in opposition to', e.g. The United States fought with Great Britain in the War of 1812. Also denotes a close association between two or more participants, e.g. The United States fought with Great Britain against Germany in World War II.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Lederer, Richard (1998-06-01) Crazy English, Revised edition, Pocket, →ISBN, page 224
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^ "bound", in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, p130
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 10.4 10.5 10.6 10.7 10.8 Gorrell, Robert (1994) Watch Your Language: Mother Tongue And Her Wayward Children[1], University of Nevada Press, pages 61-63
  11. ^ "cleave", in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1977), p208
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^ Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk, Barbara (1998), “Dynamic Perspective on Antonymous Polysemy”, in Rainer Schulze, editor, Making Meaningful Choices in English[2], pages 132-134
  15. ^
  16. ^ Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk, Barbara (1998), “Dynamic Perspective on Antonymous Polysemy”, in Rainer Schulze, editor, Making Meaningful Choices in English[3], page 130
  17. ^ The comparison of a noun to an adjective is not a contradiction, and as noted, the adjective derives from use by the persons described in the noun.
  18. ^ - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  19. ^ reflexive - Definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  20. ^
  21. ^ showstopper
  22. ^ Although the word "trying" may have different meanings, "making an effort" is not the opposite of "hard to endure".
  23. ^ Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk, Barbara (1998), “Dynamic Perspective on Antonymous Polysemy”, in Rainer Schulze, editor, Making Meaningful Choices in English[4], page 131

External links[edit]