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These Weird Words Contradict Themselves!

We all know about synonyms and antonyms. But have you ever heard of contronyms? Here’s a hint - these words can contradict themselves. And if don’t think that this is possible, let us assure you that you likely use plenty of such words in your everyday speech already. Read on for a list of 11 widespread contronyms in English.

What are contronyms?

Contronyms plus minus hold

George had already left the supermarket and drove home when he realized that there’s no milk left in the fridge. In this sentence, the word left means to “depart” in the first instance and to “remain” when it appears for the second time. These two meanings are opposite, which makes the word ‘left’ its own antonym. Crazy, right?

Such “two-faced” words are better known as contronyms because their meanings can be opposite of each other, or contradictory, depending on the context. Contronyms are also sometimes called Janus words. Janus was an ancient Roman god who had two faces looking in opposite directions, so the parallel between contronyms and the ancient Roman deity is pretty apparent. Other ways to refer to a contronym are auto-antonym and antagonym.

Whatever you choose to call them, contronyms are more common than you think. Just take a peek at these 11 words, and you’ll see that you hear and use them in your speech all the time.

1. Dust

Contronyms Dust
In its verb form, dust is a clear contronym. It means both “to clean up dust” and to “sprinkle with powder.” So, you could ask someone to dust the shelves before the arrival of visitors or to dust the freshly-baked cookies with powdered sugar before guests arrive. Confusing these two meanings can lead to quite a messy situation!

2. Custom

Contronyms Custom
There’s a big difference between a customary dress and a custom dress, but these two can be easily confused, especially by non-native speakers of English. The first refers to the meaning of the word custom as "a practice or tradition shared by a society, culture, or group of people."
For example, there is a custom to wear traditional wedding attire in many cultures across the globe. But that doesn’t mean that the custom dress you had made will fit the occasion, as the word custom in this second meaning refers to "a tailored or unique garment."

3. Seed

Contronyms Seed
When it’s used as a verb, the word seed can confuse even the biggest grammar nerd! Even though both meanings have something to do with seeds, the manipulations done to them couldn't be further apart. When you are asked to seed a watermelon, you’ve got to pick out the seeds from the fruit. But when someone tells you that they’re planning to seed tomatoes in their garden this spring, you know that they will be planting seeds into the soil.

4. Trim

Contronyms Trim
If you ever need to get your clothes tailored, this pesky word could potentially get you in trouble. That’s because trimming your new pants could either mean cutting them to fit the length of your legs or embellishing the bottom hems with lace or ribbon. Of course, the chance of you being misunderstood is pretty slim, but technically speaking, the verb trim could mean both of these things.

5. Finished

Contronyms Finished
I tipped the vase over by mistake. It fell, and it’s now finished.” What happened to the vase? Judging from the context, most people will agree that the poor vase had seen better days and was most likely destroyed. But we all know that the same verb can also mean that the vase was completed, like in the sentence, “The potter has been working on this vase for hours, but it is now finally finished.”

6. Screen

Contronyms Screen
Even though most of us go to the movies less often these days, we all know what a film screening is. So when someone asks you when a new film you anticipate will screen at local cinemas, you know exactly what they’re inquiring about - the premiere date. But the verb screen can also refer to covering something, as in the sentence, “I lost my hat, so I had to use a book to screen my face from the sun.” Pretty neat, right?

7. Clip

Contronyms Clip
Much like the verb trim, the word clip can refer to either removing something or something else entirely. So don’t reach for scissors if someone wants you to clip a bunch of papers. Your tool of choice should be a paper clip because you need to fasten the papers together. But when it comes to clipping the hedges, it’s an entirely different story. In this case, there’s no fastening involved, so ditch the string and go for the garden shears!

8. Fast

Contronyms Fast
If the phrase hold fast never made sense to you, that’s probably because you’re not aware that the word fast has two opposing meanings. One meaning points to something moving with great speed, whereas the other denotes a static, secure, and steady position. That’s how you get types of glue that hold objects fast and such that dry fast. Try to wrap your head around this one!

9. Overlook

Contronyms Overlook
If there’s one contronym you shouldn’t overlook, this is it! To overlook is a verb that can mean both that you missed or failed to consider something and that you supervise or oversee something or someone. So, when a teacher overlooked a mistake in a student’s homework, they probably missed it rather than observe it with great care. And vice versa, a worker responsible for overlooking an important task can still be good at his or her job! 

10. Weather

Contronyms Weather
A weathered rock is old and almost disintegrating, but a person who weathered the storm is the opposite: seasoned, tireless, and unwavering. Therefore, the verb weather has two opposing meanings - one showing the ability of someone to endure, and the other pointing to apparent wear and tear.
Remember the distinction between the two meanings with this sentence, “If you want your home to weather the rain and snow, replace those old and weathered windows.”

11. Fine

Contronyms Fine
What’s the difference between a fine bottle of wine and a bottle of wine that’s just “fine”? First and foremost, it’s your attitude! That’s because the adjective fine has the potential to mean both that something’s excellent and simply the best, and also that it's barely satisfactory.
So, when you want to say that something is of superb quality, it’s best not to use the word fine when describing it. The risk of being misunderstood is far greater than you think!
Share these interesting words with those who love English and grammar!
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