11/25/2014 08:39 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

14 Weird Words That Literally Contradict Themselves

Words. Words. Words. Millions of them. Delightful little toys for wordsmiths like me. I particularly enjoy special categories of words which have something in common, e. g. Contronyms. Every schoolboy and schoolgirl knows synonyms and antonyms, but what are contronyms?

Contronyms are words (or sometimes short expressions) which have two more or less opposite meanings. No, "bridegroom" is not a contronym, though it includes two contradictory words but not opposite meanings. It is a synonym for "groom." The word strike is a contronym; It can mean hit, as in hitting someone, or it can mean miss, as used in baseball.

Contronyms (sometimes spelled contranyms) can also be called self-antonyms, auto-antonyms, antagonyms or Janus words (two-faced), though the word contronyms is most widely used. They have existed as long as most languages, with the possible exception of those using Chinese characters or pictograms. For example, the Spanish word huésped means both host and guest. In Hebrew and Yiddish, shalom means both hello and good by, as Aloah does in Hawaiian. Shalom means peace and aloah means love, which possibly explains both these uses. The word "contronym" itself, however, probably did not appear until 1962 in the works of Jack Herring.

If you like to play with words, the English language gives you many opportunities. For example, Palindromes are words or expressions spelled the same backwards and forwards, e.g. words such as deed, noon and level, or the names Hannah and Otto, or a longer word such as redivider. If you include expressions, you can find much longer palindromes such as Madam, I'm Adam or a Toyota, race car. (Ignore the punctuation.) Lots of fun; Try to see how long an expression you can put together. Retronyms are old words, which need an additional amplifier to bring them up-to-date, due to social, political or technological changes. Examples are acoustic guitar, analogue clock, fresh air and unsafe sex. (Figure it out yourself.)

In addition, there are language categories which bring a smile to the face or a loud guffaw --Spoonerisms, Wellerisms, Malapropisms, Tom Swifty's and Paraprosdokia. Spoonerisms are tongue-twisters such as "tips of the slongue." Malapropisms involve words which sound alike but, when misused, embarrass the speaker. Example: Going way back to Gracie Allen, "You could have knocked me over with a fender!" Users of Wellerisms quote a common saying, and follow it with a ridiculous example. "I see," said the blind carpenter, as he picked up his hammer and saw." Tom Swifty's (based on a children's book) start by stating an action and following it with an amusingly descriptive adverb, e.g. "We must hurry," said Tom swiftly. (Get it?) Paraprosdokia means starting a sentence with one thought and then abruptly shifting to a totally different (and usually contrary) one. Quoting Groucho Marx, "I've had a wonderful evening, but this wasn't it." Comedians love paraprosdokia.

Add twisted, double-meaning newspaper headline bloopers (New Bridge Held Up by Red Tape) and words spelled the same but pronounced differently (An immigrant coming into a bookstore, asking for a book to "Polish my English.") and you have a cocktail of amusing and fascinating examples of things which make our language exciting.

Add to these words which combine letter and number sounds to cut down on verbiage. e.g. 4C for foresee, K9P for canine pee and LEV8 for alleviate, and you have additional material for playing language games.

But, let's get back to contronyms. I have nearly 100 of them in my knapsack. Let's provide the reader with a few prime ones:

To hold together (as in mechanical bolting) or to separate by fleeing.

To connect (as with a paper clip) or to detach (as in clipping your hedge).

To repair (as in putting together) or to castrate (as in cutting apart).

To add to (as with food preparation ) or to take away (as with wages).

An advantage (to insure equality, as in golf) or a disadvantage (that prevents or minimizes equal achievement).

Hold up
To support (as in Liberty holding up the torch) or to impede (as in holding up legislation).

To rent property, or to offer property for rent.

Visible (as with the moon) or invisible (as with an electric light).

To approve, or to boycott.

To present, or to conceal.

To remove (as in skinning an animal for its fur). or to cover.

To decorate (as with a Christmas tree) or to remove excess (as with a mustache).

To endure, or to deteriorate.

Wind up
To start (as with a clock) or to end (as with a business).

How do these contradictory meanings come about? We don't always know, but they do originate in different ways. For example, cleave (to adhere or to separate) come from Old English roots, the first from clifian and the second from cleofan. Oversight probably resulted from confusion of the verbs overlook and oversee when people started the use them in nouns. Other contronyms such as seed and dust probably had similar origins when verbs were appended to describe how they were to be moved. Dusting involves either adding dust or removing dust. Seeds are scattered during planting, but removed from the resulting fruit. A number of others arise from different usage in the United States and England. For example, to table a bill in the English Parliament is to put it on the table for consideration. In Congress, it means to set it aside. When an American Judge enjoins someone, he forbids him or her from carrying out a certain action. When a British Judge enjoins, he is directing the party to act. If a West End play in London is a bomb, it is a huge success. In America, a bomb is a failure. There are undoubtedly other reasons for the rise of these words, but origin of these contradictions is often obscure.

I hope the reader has enjoyed this awesome blog on Contronyms, even though, in Old English, it would have been considered "awful."

Marv Rubinstein is the author of The Compendium Of American English.


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