The Grammarphobia Blog

Two-faced words, part 2

Q: I found your appearance last month on WNYC fascinating. I sat in the parking lot of a grocery store until it finished. I was particularly interested in your discussion of “sanction” and other words that are their own opposites. I have a small collection that may interest you: “cleave” (to cling or to part), “oversight” (a failure to notice or watchful care), and “dust” (to wipe off or to sprinkle on).

A: I’m glad you enjoyed the show, but I misspoke when I referred to these two-faced words as “autonyms.” The usual name for these words is “contronyms.” though they are sometimes called “auto-antonyms” or “autantonyms.”

Here are some others besides “sanction,” “cleave,” “oversight,” and “dust”:

“Screen”: to view or to hide from view.

“Weather”: to stand up against a stress, or to be eroded by a stress.

“Buckle”: to fasten up, or to bend and break (not precisely opposites).

“Bolt”: to flee or to fix in place.

“Fast”: moving quickly or stuck in place.

“Boned”: to have bones, or to have had them removed.

“Enjoin”: to forbid, or to require.

“Seed”: to plant them, or to remove them.

“Trim”: to remove parts, or to add to (as in decoration).

I’m sure there are many others!

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