In English, "inflammable" means "combustible" but can be taken to mean "non-flammable",[1] so English safety labels typically use "flammable".

An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contronym (also spelled contranym), is a word with a homograph (another word of the same spelling) which is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god), enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd).[2][3] It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is called enantiosemy,[4] enantionymy or antilogy.


  • Origins 1
  • In other languages 2
  • Examples 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • Further reading 6
  • External links 7


The terms "autantonym" and "contronym" were coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960 and Jack Herring in 1962, respectively. Some pairs of contronyms are true homographs, i.e., distinct words with different etymology which happen to have the same form. For instance cleave "separate" is from Old English clēofan, while cleave "adhere" is from Old English clifian, which was pronounced differently. This is related to false friends, but false friends do not necessarily contradict.

Other contronyms are a form of polysemy, but where a single word acquires different and ultimately opposite senses. For instance quite, which meant "clear" or "free" in Middle English, can mean "slightly" (quite nice) or "completely" (quite beautiful). Other examples include sanction — "permit" or "penalize"; bolt (originally from crossbows) — "leave quickly" or "fix"; fast — "moving rapidly" or "unmoving". Many English examples result from nouns being verbed into distinct senses "add to" and "remove from"; e.g. dust, seed, stone.

Some contronyms result from differences in national varieties of English. For example, to table a bill means "to put it up for debate" in British English, while it means "to remove it from debate" in American English.

Often, one sense is more obscure or archaic, increasing the danger of misinterpretation when it does occur; for instance, the King James Bible often uses "let" in the sense of "forbid", a meaning which is now obsolete, except in the legal phrase "without let or hindrance" and in tennis, squash and table tennis.

An apocryphal story relates how Charles II (or sometimes Queen Anne) described St Paul's Cathedral (using contemporaneous English) as "awful, pompous, and artificial," with the meaning (rendered in modern English) of "awe-inspiring, majestic, and ingeniously designed."[5]

In addition, various neologisms or other such words contain simultaneous opposing meanings in the same context, rather than alternative meanings depending on context (e.g. coopetition).

In other languages

Auto-antonyms also exist in other languages. For example, in Latin sacer has the double meaning "sacred, holy" and "accursed, infamous", Spanish huésped may mean either "host" or "guest"; the same is true for the Italian and French cognates, ospite and hôte respectively (all three deriving from the Latin hospes). Hindi: कल and Urdu: کل‎ (kal ) may mean either "yesterday" or "tomorrow" (disambiguated by the verb in the sentence). The Swahili verb kutoa means both "to remove" and "to add".

Sometimes an apparent opposition of senses comes from presuming the point of view of a different language. In Hawaiian, for example, aloha is translated both as “hello” and as “goodbye”, but the essential meaning of the word is “love”, making it appropriate as both greeting and farewell. The meaning is in fact the same; it is only the occasion that is different. The Italian greeting ciao is translated as "hello" or "goodbye" depending on the context; however the original meaning was “(I'm your) slave” and so it's appropriate as both greeting and farewell. Latin altus can be translated "high" or "deep" in English, but in Latin had the single meaning "large in the vertical dimension". The difference in English between "high" and "deep" is determined by the speaker's awareness of their relationship to some perceived norm. A mountain is "high" because it is well above sea level, and the ocean is "deep" because it plunges well below it. Both, however, were altus in Latin.

This concept is superficially similar to a few examples in Italian, such as describing accumulated snow as being "high", alta, rather than "deep", but this is because it is considered to be heaped above the reference level of the ground, rather than a throwback to Latin. The adjective, profondo is used instead to describe the idea of depth below a given reference level, so the sea is profondo, along with the vast majority of examples in which "deep" would be used in English. In Italian, alto mare means not "deep sea" but "high sea", with the same meaning as in English of "open water beyond territorial limits". The tide, marea, also follows the same pattern as English, being either "high" or "low", depending on whether it is above or below the mean. However, Italian, French and Spanish all use their own equivalents of "high" to describe cooking pots, frying pans and saucepans which in English would be called "deep". In English, "tall", as a synonym of "high", would only be used to describe a pot when its height is considerably greater than its diameter, and drinking glasses with such proportions are also referred to as "tall" rather than "deep".


  • "abysmal" 1: immensely great: Profound , 2: immensely low or wretched
  • "Back" can mean 'in the past' (as in, to go back in time) or it can mean 'further into the future' (as in, to push a date back)
  • "Canned" can mean "prepared" ('a canned reponse') or "discarded" ('thrown in the trashcan')
  • "To cleave" can mean "to cling" or "to split apart."
  • "Custom" can mean "standard" (shorthand for customary) or "tailored."
  • "To dust" can mean to remove dust (cleaning a house) or to add dust (e.g. to dust a cake with powdered sugar).
  • "Episodic" can mean "at irregular intervals" or "at regular intervals".
  • "Fast" as an adverb can mean "without moving; fixed in place", as in "holding fast" (also as in "steadfast"), or it can mean "moving quickly."
  • "Help" can mean "to assist", or in the phrase "can't help (doing / but do)" it means "prevent (myself from)."
  • "Hew" can mean "to chop" or (in North America) "to adhere".
  • "Impregnable" can mean "invulnerable" and also (vulnerable) to impregnation.
  • "Inflammable" technically means "capable of burning" but is commonly misunderstood to mean "unburnable".[1]
  • "Left" can mean "remaining" or "departed."
  • "Let" can mean "allow" or "prevent" (Hamlet says. "I'll make a ghost of him that lets me.")
  • "Nonplussed" can mean "baffled" or "perplexed", but in North America can also mean "not disconcerted" or "unperturbed".
  • "Off" can mean "to activate" / "to begin to make a noise" (e.g. "The alarm went off") or "to deactivate" / "to stop operating" (e.g. "The alarm turned off by itself").
  • "Old" can refer to something in its past state or its later state.
  • "Oversight" (uncountable) means "supervision", "an oversight" (countable) means "not noticing something."
  • "Pass on" can mean "reject from" or "continue through a process" (e.g. "Let's pass on this candidate").
  • "Quite" can mean "absolutely" (e.g. "I'm quite alright, thank you") or merely "to an extent" (e.g. "It's quite cold outside").
  • "Refrain" can mean either non-action or the repetition of an action (e.g. in musical notation).
  • "To rent" can mean "to borrow from" or "to lend to."
  • "To replace" can mean "to place back where it was" or "substitute with something else."
  • "Resigned" can mean "to have signed again" or "to have quit". The former is sometimes hyphenated as "re-signed" for clarity.
  • "Restive" can mean "having difficulty staying still" ("restless") or "reluctant to move."
  • "To sanction" can mean "to permit" or "to punish."
  • "To screen" can mean "to show" or "to conceal."
  • "To seed" can mean "to place seeds" or "to remove seeds."
  • "To table" can mean "to present something for discussion" as well as "to decide not to discuss something until a later time."
  • "To trim" can mean "to add edging" or "to cut away at the edges or ends."
  • "To weather" can mean "to withstand the elements" / "to hold fast", or it can mean "to wear away due to the elements" / "to decay or wear away."

A literary example in the form of an extended prose reflection is Samuel Beckett's Stirrings Still'.'

See also


  1. ^ a b
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^

Further reading

  • Sheidlower, Jesse (1 November 2005). "The Word We Love To Hate". Slate.
  • Leithauser, Brad (14 October 2013). "Unusable Words". The New Yorker.
  • Schulz, Kathryn (7 April 2015). What Part of "No, Totally" Don't You Understand?. The New Yorker.

External links

  • Antagonyms
  • List of autoantonyms at
  • Fun with Words at