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Self-contradicting words in English

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This is a list of self-contradicting English words -- that is, words which in and of themselves have two or more generally accepted meanings in the English language that directly or generally contradict each other. Such words are also known as auto-antonyms, antagonyms, contronyms, and words having contradefinitions. Many such contradefinitions 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. See list of oxymora for a list of examples.

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.

T-Rex in the November 2nd, 2007 edition of Dinosaur Comics describes this class of words as homographic homophonic autantonyms.

A [ top ]

Adumbrate  "To outline or sketch, to disclose partially", but also "to hide or obscure."

Awesome  The strict definition of this adjective is "fearsome, mighty"; but the now generally accepted slang usage roughly equates to "enjoyable, fun."

Awful As with awesome above, this can mean "inspiring" or, more commonly, "revolting."

Against  Depending on context, this word can mean "towards" or "close to" ("against the wall"); otherwise it means "opposing" ("against the wind").

B [ top ]

Bad  American urban slang, chiefly in the 1970s and 1980s, reassigned bad to mean "good". This is believed to have been introduced by Afro-Americans based on a similar feature in a west African language.

Before  Earlier or sooner than; or in the future of; awaiting as in "the golden age is before us". This arises from "before" representing "in front of," while time can be conceived of from the perspective of a person in the timeline ("the future is before us") or from an observer standing outside time ("the past is before the present").

Blunt  In common use, when this adjective is applied to an object, it means "dull, not sharp"; but when applied to a statement, it generally means "straight to the point, direct".

Bolt  As a transitive verb, it means "to secure something in place (with a bolt)". But as an intransitive verb, it means "to leave or run away from (quickly)". The expression "you're bolting the stable door after the horse has bolted" means that one is acting to prevent something that has already happened.

Boned  To contain bones, to remove bones, or be in the state of having had bones removed.

Borrow  American slang. Usually means to be on the receiving end of a loan, as in, "Bob, may I borrow your rake?" It is often also used as slang to describe the act of lending, as in, "Bob, will you borrow me your rake?"

Bound  In the construction bound for, it means "moving towards someplace"; as an adjective by itself, it means "tied up, secure", in other words "unable to move".

Buckle  As a verb construction of the noun buckle, which is a device for clasping a belt together, it means "to secure, tighten, hold"; otherwise, it means "to weaken, collapse".

C [ top ]

Certain  can refer either to an indeterminate quality ("she has a certain air about her") as well as to an established fact (a certainty).

Check (cheque)  Like bill, this can either refer to a bank check, having a positive monetary value; or to a restaurant check, which is a statement of money owed.

Chuffed  In British slang this has come to mean "pleased", synonymous to "puffed up"; the strict definition is "displeased, upset".

Cleave  To cleave means both to separate and to cling together.

Clip  When referring to the noun clip, this verb means "to attach together". Otherwise, as applied to part of a larger corpus (e.g. "clipping an article"), it means "to cut apart from".

Commencement  As a noun form of the verb commence, this should mean "the start"; however the most popular use of the term is for university graduation ceremonies, at the end of schooling. (It should be noted that the intent of the term is to mean "the start of professional life", but this is not the primary perception of the event.)

Comprise  means "to consist of" (The nation comprises fifty states) but is also commonly used to mean "to constitute" (Fifty states comprise the nation).

Constrain  can mean both "to force to" and "to repress".

Contingent  The adjective contingent describes a known dependency or result; but the noun form contingency usually refers to an unexpected event.

Continue  The verb continue means "to keep doing"; however the noun form continuation, in legal usage, means "to pick up later".

Cool  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".

Critical  Can mean "vital to success" (a critical component), or "disparaging" (a critical comment).

Custom  As a noun, this means "conventional behavior"; but as an adjective, it means "specially designed".

D [ top ]

Derivation  Derivation means both "something derived; a derivative" and the "source from which something is derived; an origin."

Dispose  As a past tense verb, disposed means "removed" or "gotten rid of"; as an adjective; disposed means "available".

Downhill  When referring to difficulty, it means "progressively easier"; but when referring to status or condition, it means "progressively worse".

Dusting  When dusting furniture, this means "to remove dust from"; but when "dusting for fingerprints", or when used as a noun ("a dusting of snow"), it means respectively "to apply dust" or "the application of dust".

E [ top ]

Either  As an adjective, it can mean "one or the other of two," as in "you either passed or failed your test". It can also mean "each of two; the one and the other" as in "there are trees on either side of the river."

Enduring  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".

Enjoin  A verb meaning either "to require" or "to forbid," as in a judicial order

Execute  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]

F [ top ]

Fast  Fast can mean either "to move or do quickly" or it can mean "to not move," as in "holding fast". As an adjective, it can also convey both meanings: "The rabbit is fast;" "The door is fast."

G [ top ]

Garnish  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.)

Generally  usually true, but also subject to exception. The meaning "all-inclusive, without exception" is now obsolete.

H [ top ]

Handicap  Advantage (e.g. in sport) or disadvantage/disability

Hew  "To separate" as well as "to stick (to)" (when used with "to"); cf. "cleave" above.

I [ top ]

Incomparable  The most common meaning of this adjective is "eminent beyond comparison, matchless": something is incomparable if it is far greater than anything else in its class. However, in mathematics, two objects are incomparable if neither is greater than the other.

L [ top ]

Lease  To lend or to borrow.

Left  As a past tense verb, it means "to have gone"; as an adjective; it means "remaining".

Let  As a verb usually means "allow"; in an older (but not obsolete) sense it means "prevent".

Literally  Originally "in the literal sense", it has come to mean "in effect, or virtually". The newer use is widely criticized by proscriptive speakers, as the original use enables one to make a useful distinction between the face value of words and their use in a metaphoric sense.

Lurid  Can mean either pale or glowing with color.

M [ top ]

Moot  Formerly and more acceptably meaning "open for discussion, debatable," it is now more commonly used to mean "irrelevant to discussion or debate."

N [ top ]

Natty  Fashionable or unkempt.

O [ top ]

Off  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  Original either means plain, or unchanged (as in original flavour), or it could mean something creative or new (an original idea).

Out  Similar to off, to take something out means to remove it; but to bring something out is to exhibit it prominently.

Oversight  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.

P [ top ]

Par  In all cases, par means "average". Below par should then mean "below average", and the phrase "to feel below par", meaning "to feel unwell" has this sense. However, in golf, since a lower score means a better showing, below par means "better than average".

Peer  Strictly, a peer is someone on the same social level as you; but in chiefly British usage, a peer is a person having a title of nobility (and so at a higher social level than the general populace).

Periodic Means to occur both at regular intervals and at irregular intervals

Peruse  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."

Prove  Originally, it meant "test", but the meaning has shifted to "verify". It is the original meaning that is intended in such phrases as "50 proof", "the proof is in the pudding", and "the exception proves the rule".

Public  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.)

Q [ top ]

Qualified  Can mean "limited" (as in "qualified success") or "skilled, skilful" (as in "a qualified expert").

Quiddity  Can mean either the essence of a thing or a quibble.

R [ top ]

Raveling means both to entangle and to untangle

Rent  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"

Reservation  as a concrete noun, this can be "a confirmation" of availability; as an abstract noun, it is "a fear or uncertainty".

Resign  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.

Riot  A riot is usually a chaotic spree of violence and destruction; but in more casual use it can refer to a funny story or a good party. (Outside observers may argue that this last definition often resembles the first.)

S [ top ]

Sanction  The verb sanction means "to permit"; the noun sanctions normally means "restrictions".

Scan  Originally, this word meant "to examine closely," but has come to mean "to look over hastily".

Screen  Conceal with or as if with a screen; or "to display prominently" as in screening a film.

Secreted  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.

Seed  to plant a field, or to clean seeds from a fruit

Several  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".

Shelled  Shelled can describe either the result of removing a shelled (e.g., we shelled the hazelnuts) or describe something that has a shell (e.g., turtles are like shelled snakes with legs).

Show-stopper  In the standard usage, this means "something that is strikingly attractive or has great popular appeal". Recent usage particularly in the computer industry has "A bug that makes an implementation effectively unusable".

Sick  Used with a standard definition, this word can mean "disgusted; revolted," but used colloquially, it can mean "very pleasant; agreeable".

Skin  To add skin, or to remove it. "Skin that deer" "Skin that kayak".

Smell  Means both to emit an odor ("My foot smells") and to perceive an odor ("My nose smells"). The former is a rare example of the use of ergativity in English , which occurs when what is typically a direct object of a transitive verb is re-processed as an intransitive verb — "My foot smells" is in essence a re-processing of "[unknown subject] smells my foot."

Strike  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"

Suspicious  Can mean that a person is acting in a way that suggests wrong-doing, i.e. "He seems very suspicious." or can mean that the person in question suspects wrong doing in others, i.e. "He was suspicious of her motives."

T [ top ]

Table  Generally, the phrase put on the table means "to present something for consideration"; however, in American parliamentary procedure, the verb table means to put off discussion of a topic.

Temper  As a verb, it can either mean to soften or mollify, or to strengthen (e.g. a metal).

Terrific  Originally and still used to mean "inducing terror", but has now come to have a positive connotation as well, meaning "fantastic" or "amazing"

Trim  Similar to clip: it can mean "to add decoration to" (trim the (Christmas) tree), or "to remove from" (trim the bushes).

Trying  As an adjective, 'hard to endure'. As a verb, 'to make an effort'. A teacher's report may say, "Your child is trying".

U [ top ]

Unbending  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 ..."

Unshelled  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 in 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).

Utopia  A system of government regarded as perfect, often without war, poverty, hunger and the like, as in "It would be great if we could live in a utopia" : or a system of government bound to fall into a dystopia due to imperfect humans, or carelessness in design, or other factors, as in "His idea is naively utopian!"

W [ top ]

Weather  Weathering a storm means "to endure" the storm; but generally weathering means "to decay".

Wicked  Similar to awesome above, the strict definition of the adjective is "evil"; the now generally accepted slang usage (barring regional quirks) is roughly equivalent to "very good".

With  Can mean together/accompanying, "I am with you"; also can mean against as in "I fought with my brother" .


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

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