The Grammarphobia Blog

Two-faced words

Q: What do you call self-opposing words like “cleave,” “sanction,” etc.?

A: The term for a word that has two opposing meanings is “contronym.”

In addition to “cleave” and “sanction,” examples include “oversight,” “buckle” (to fasten or to collapse), “dust” (to sprinkle with something dusty or to remove it), and “weather” (to erode or to withstand).

There are several other names for these terms, including “Janus words” (after the god with two faces), “auto-antonyms,” and “self-antonyms.” Take your pick.

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