10 Verbs That Are Contronyms

Have you ever encountered a word and learned that it meant the opposite of what you remembered? If so, you may have come across a contronym.

A contronym, often referred to as a Janus word or auto-antonym, is a word that evokes contradictory or reverse meanings depending on the context. Specifically, a contronym is a word with a homonym (another word with the same spelling but different meaning) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning).

Generally, contronyms became contronyms in one of two ways: (1) different words with different etymologies converged into one word, or (2) one word acquired different and opposite meanings over time.

Here are some contronyms that are commonly used as verbs in the English language:

to buckle

Definition 1: to fasten or secure with a buckle (i.e., a device with a frame, hinged pin, and movable tongue, designed to fasten together two loose ends of a belt or strap).
Example 1: Our hiking instructors told us to buckle our backpacks to our bodies during rigorous climbs.

Definition 2: to bend, warp, or collapse under pressure.
Example 2: I felt my legs buckle as I hiked up the steep mountain with my heavy backpack.

to cleave

Definition 1: to join or adhere closely; cling.
Example 1: The shy baby rabbit cleaved to his mother’s body.

Definition 2: to split or divide, especially by cutting.
Example 2: The hunter uses a Swiss Army knife to cleave the rabbit’s meat from the bone.

to dust

Definition 1: to remove dust.
Example 1: My mother asked me to dust the window shades before the party.

Definition 2: to sprinkle with soil or dust.
Example 2: I watched my mother dust my birthday cake in a thin layer of white sugar.

to enjoin

Definition 1: to instruct, prescribe, or command.
Example 1: For my sake, our family counselor enjoined my parents to communicate with each other after their divorce.

Definition 2: to prohibit or forbid (especially via an injunction).
Example 2: After my parents’ divorce, the court enjoined my abusive mother from contacting me and my father.

to overlook

Definition 1: to monitor or inspect.
Example 1: Our teachers overlook our academic progress.

Definition 2: to fail to notice or choose not to emphasize.
Example 2: Because they are tired, my teachers often overlook the spelling errors in my homework.

to peruse

Definition 1: to skim or read without attention to detail.
Example 1: My mind wanders when I peruse chemistry textbooks because I have no interest in science.

Definition 2: to read or examine in detail.
Example 2: To study for the final exam, I sit down in a quiet room to peruse my chemistry notes.

to ravel

Definition 1: to tangle.
Example 1: When she is bored, my daughter ravels her hair into huge knots with her hands.

Definition 2: to disentangle threads or fibers.
Example 2: My daughter uses tweezers to ravel stubborn knots in her hair.

to rent

Definition 1: to sell or lease the use of a commodity.
Example 1: The landlord rents her apartment in the city to a young couple.

Definition 2: to buy the use of a commodity.
Example 2: Depending on how much money you want to spend, you can rent a room or an entire apartment from the landlord.

to sanction

Definition 1: to permit or grant approval.
Example 1: In some countries, the government sanctions the ownership of guns by private citizens.

Definition 2: to condemn or penalize.
Example 2: In some states, the government imposes sanctions on the ownership of guns by private citizens.

to screen

Definition 1: to protect or conceal.
Example 1: Because he did not have a hat or umbrella, he used a newspaper to screen his face from the sun.

Definition 2: to show or broadcast (a movie or TV show).
Example 2: The local movie theater will screen the new horror movie tonight.

The next time you run into a word that confuses you, keep in mind that seemingly simple words can have opposite or multiple implications, and that the meaning of a word depends on both its dictionary definition and the context in which it is used.

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Comments 0
56 comments
Gavin
Gavin

The two meanings of 'buckle' - whilst quite different - don't seem to me to be opposites? Am I missing something?

russlamberti
russlamberti

How about "wean"? Wean a child on to something and wean a child off of something. Or does this misrepresent the concept?

Ebony Redfern
Ebony Redfern

To wean a child off something is to gradually get them used to not having it. To be weaned on something is to be strongly influenced by it, for example you could be weaned on Disney movies. I don't think they're contranyms.

Beatrice
Beatrice

Here is another one: chuckle.

It can mean both give a loud laugh or give a muffled laugh.

Marlene
Marlene

To rent also means past tense of rend, to tear.  "Her skirt became rent when she caught it on an exposed  nail on the bench."

georgeskanoute
georgeskanoute

@Marlene "To rent" is to lease. Rent, without the "to" is indeed the past tense of to rend. If it's a past tense, the "to" doesn't belong there. Anyway, the past tense of to rend is a homonym of rent, but it's not an antonym, so it doesn't enter into this discussion. 

jbejarano
jbejarano

My favorite auto-antonym is "pitch".  It's a double auto-antonym.


1.  v.t.  To actively promote or proselytize.  "Carol pitched the screenplay to the movie producer."

2.  v.t.  To discard.  "After emptying the toner cartridge, Bob pitched it."

3.  n.  A level surface esp. an athletic playing field.  "The soccer players came out onto the pitch."

4.  n.  A steep incline.  "The roofers charged me extra due to the steep pitch of my roof."

madhaus
madhaus

I disagree that RENT is a contranym. The positions in the transaction changes depending on the preposition TO or FROM, but in both cases involve the sale of the usage rights of a commodity. I can take a candy from you or take one to you, and that is also clearly the same meaning of the verb. What changed is who ends up with the candy at the period.

LEASE works in the exact same way.

SusanHendersonStocker
SusanHendersonStocker

Thank you for the contronyms!  There is a 3rd definition for rent:  to tear off or to tear into pieces.  He rent his shirt in anger !

Elizabeth Pena
Elizabeth Pena

Sorry georgeskanoute, @SusanHendersonStocker is actually correct.

JennySio
JennySio

@Elizabeth Pena but then the rent use in this article is in simple form and different from the word rend

Elizabeth Pena
Elizabeth Pena

@georgeskanoute - I was actually referencing definition 3 in that picture, which does say that rent is the past tense or past participle of the verb to rent, which I thought you were disputing in your first comment.

georgeskanoute
georgeskanoute

@Elizabeth Pena oh right. i missed that somehow. my eyes seem to have seen that synonyms for definition #3 are lease and let, so without reading the first line i skipped ahead to definition #4. but those synonyms are then blatantly wrong as they have nothing to do with the definition presented in #3. one more reason to reach for the OED instead of the Merriam-Webster! anyway, yeah, i was saying that the actual verb (infinitive) in 'he rent his shirt in anger' is 'to rend' and not 'to rent'. i see now that i was not clear. sorry about that.

MikeGriffin2
MikeGriffin2

The definition I learned for Homonym  are words that sound like one another but have different meanings. Some homonyms are spelled the same, but that isn't a requirement.  According to that def, RAISE and RAZE are also contronyms.

MotMista
MotMista

As a poet, my favorite such word, embodying apposite meanings and requiring context to choose between those meanings, is the verb SCAN: (1) to examine text thoroughly for all its points, including the special case of analysing verse to determine its meter; (2) to read over a document in a cursory manner merely for its general sense.

MotMista
MotMista

"Apposite?" Excuse me, I intended "opposite," or better yet, "opposing."

DanielLaurita
DanielLaurita

Enjoin means to command in both examples.  One does not ravel a knot they unravel it. to sanction means to impose a law which can be either a positive law ora negative law.

KelleyMann
KelleyMann

@DanielLaurita You "unravel" a knot to undo tangles, you "ravel" a knot when you create them- this is why their secondary use of the word "ravel" surprised me.

Aidan Howard
Aidan Howard

@KelleyMann The confusion of this "ravel/unravel" thing is because of its etymology. Ravel did not originally mean tangle at all. It meant to unweave, that is to pull apart that which had been woven. But because the result of an unweaving was a tangled mess, the meaning expanded to being both the undoing the knots of the weave AND the creating of the knots of the mess that resulted.

Added to this was the fact that the prefix "un" does not always mean "the opposite of", but sometimes the sense of "opening up". We find this in words like "uncover", in which, true, we end up being the opposite of covered, but the process is more of a disclosure or an opening up to what is underneath. This notion that an oppositional prefix is not always opposite is seen in words like "inflammable" and "impassive" and "intense", which mean flammable and passive and tense, because "in/im" are often intensifiers rather than negations. Similarly "denude" and "defraud" and "debar" mean make nude and commit fraud and bar, because while "de" means to undo, here they mean an intensifier.

Thus, the "un" in "unravel" has been a negation only in modern English. Originally it was just the ravelling out, the unweaving out, while the ravel itself was both the unweaving of the knots and weave that made up the fabric and the resulting knots and mess that came from this.

Ebony Redfern
Ebony Redfern

I've never heard that "un-" could be used as "opening" or as an intensifier. Do you have a source for this, or do you know any words that follow this pattern? (The examples you gave seem to be using "un-" in the traditional sense of negation or reversal.)

Ebony Redfern
Ebony Redfern

I see what you're saying, but I would argue that the reason why those processes are gradual is that the verb was already a gradual process, not because of the prefix. Un- is still simply denoting reversal.

Aidan Howard
Aidan Howard

@Ebony Redfern The example that I gave, "uncover", has both the sense of the negation (literally to remove the cover, which is really "discover") and the sense of a gradual disclosure. The verb "unfold" similarly has a literal sense of "to remove the fold" but also indicates a gradual opening up. "To unwind" has a similar duality. Certainly, "to unfurl" is to spread or open out, NOT "to remove the 'furl' from something". So I am not so much indicating "opening" per se so much as a process of development, rather than a more clear, cut-and-dried reversal (do/undo, lock/unlock). The intensifier description referred to the other "negative" prefixes of "de" and "in" (not to "un"). I mentioned them to highlight the fact that those who only skirt around the edges of our language tend to presume that these prefixes are for negation and negation alone, when this is not always so. When Shakespeare wrote "I am unsexed" and "Unsex me here", they had broader connotations than "to remove one's sex" (however one manages to do that).

Chershay Lafamm
Chershay Lafamm

A couple more:

"Leave": to retain something in its place or to depart

"Cleave": be faithful to, hold together as friends or to split or chop (cf cleaver) 

"Bolt":  to run away or to secure in place

Hew
Hew

screen... don´t they "screen" people in airports? to find dangers?

Russell Prupis
Russell Prupis

It's interesting to see the different use of words, based on what I assume to be region. For example, Ebony Redfern uses peruse to imply a thoroughness. In my experience, the use of the word peruse usually refers to a less thorouhg reading, as in asking someone to persue the document at their leisure. Miriam Webster actually defines it as both : to examine or consider with attention and in detail :study

b: to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner.

Aidan Howard
Aidan Howard

The verb "to peruse" does not really have two opposing meanings. The first example, "to skim or read without attention to detail", is not a legitimate meaning of the word. It is simply the WRONG usage of the word, said for so long that people simply presume that it is a proper meaning. It isn't. It is and always has been wrong.

Nor are the meanings of "sanction" truly opposite, only in their application. A sanction is essentially any enforcement which is the product of an enactment of law or official policy, whether one sanctions a permission or a prohibition. It is like "pouring a cup"... it is an act in itself, and it is up to some other process to determine whether it will be coffee of tea.

As for "overlook", the verb in the sense of "monitor" is never used like this. For that meaning the verb must be separable, i.e. "to look over". Otherwise it would be no different than stating that "to understand" is the same as "to stand under" (and many others).

Ones that they did not have are "to refrain", meaning to curb, forbear, as well as to repeat (as in music); and "to wind up", meaning to keep ready for working (as in a clock), to agitate (a person), but also to terminate (a business).

Ebony Redfern
Ebony Redfern

@VictoriaGlinoer Dictionaries don't seem to agree. According to oxfordictionaries.com, ravel does not mean "tangle" as a verb, although as a noun it does. Insofar as it is used in both senses, etymonline.com explains it thusly: 

ravel (v.)

1580s, "to untangle, disentangle, unwind" (originally with out), also "to entangle, become tangled or confused," from Dutch ravelen "to tangle, fray," rafelen "to unweave," from rafel "frayed thread." The seemingly contradictory senses of this word (ravel and unravel are both synonyms and antonyms) are reconciled by its roots in weaving and sewing: as threads become unwoven, they get tangled.

bouncingsquares
bouncingsquares

@Aidan Howard I remember having "peruse" as a vocab word in high school English, and we were definitely given the "to skim or read without attention to detail" definition. I've been out of high school for more than ten years now, and before I read this article, I would have said that the other definition was incorrect. Unbelievable!

Aidan Howard
Aidan Howard

@bouncingsquares @Aidan Howard I know. It is phenomenal what we get LED to believe, often by the fact that our own English teachers know so little about language themselves. I am now 57, and from the age of 6 I was fascinated by language. From that age I would read one page of the dictionary every day as a ritual. But I would look not only at the meanings of the words but also their origins.

By the age of 10, my grandmother had bought me the double-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary Based on Historical Principles. I learned some fundamental flaws in my education. For example, we are taught that we use "a" before a consonant and the letter en (n) is added before a vowel, giving us "an". This turned out to be wrong for two reasons. First is that we say "a university" or "a eulogy" and "an hour" or "an honest man". Therefore we are talking not about vowels but about vowels sounds. Second is that historically they were wrong. In Old English ALL words would have "an" in front of them, thus "an booke, an manne, an house", because "an" meant both "a" (the indefinite article) and "one" (the numeral). Over time, we LOST the en before the consonant, we did not gain it before the vowel.

Also, we were taught that there are two occasions in which we use an apostrophe, one is for a missing letter (don't, shan't, even traditionally 'phone and 'bus), and the other is for possessives (the man's hat, the book's cover). Today, we have a third, that of plurals of letters and numerals (how many R's in 'referred'). But what we were taught was wrong. There was in fact only one rule. And this is because ALL possessives were already contractions. In Old English the genitive (possessive) was written "an mannes booke" (the book of a man), and later "an manes book". Because the E got shorter and shorter in length, eventually it disappeared altogether and was replaced with an apostrophe. Thus, the ONLY rule should be that an apostrophe stands for a missing letter, because that automatically includes the possessive.

When it comes to the change in vocab and meaning, our language is full of words which have evolved over time. Thus "adultery" only meant doing an unclean thing (as in adulterate or unadulterated). It then got used specifically as "sexual adultery", meaning a sexually unclean thing. And when that became the most prevalent thing that people talked about, it eventuated that adultery took on the exclusively sexual meaning and left it original meaning behind. Likewise with "promiscuous", which just means "at random". Also "to have a temperature", when everything has a temperature. Something is "on sale" if you are selling it. "Pathetic" just meant "of the emotion" long before "of the pitiful emotion". "Drugs" were any artificially produced chemicals, such as caffeine, long before they were "illicit drugs". We have hundreds of them.

At the same time, some meanings are simply wrong... period. How many times do people refer to the verb "to reiterate" as meaning "to repeat"... "Let me reiterate that." The verb "to iterate" means to repeat, so to reiterate means "to repeat again", that is to say a THIRD time or more. And yet many dictionaries define it now as "to repeat". With words like "peruse", the Latin prefix "per" means "through" or "thoroughly", as in "percolate" (to cultivate thoroughly), "persuade" (to urge thoroughly), "perambulate" (to walk about thoroughly). Therefore, to peruse must mean "to use or deal with thoroughly".

TirzahDuncan
TirzahDuncan

@Aidan Howard Oooh, so would "apathetic" mean "not of the emotion," originally? That makes lovely sense.

MotMista
MotMista

@Aidan Howard… Kudos, a word maven after mine own heart! Incidentally, I too am 57, with a pure love of words for their auditory, semantic and even epistemological intricacies dating back to early childhood. I'll wager that you too esteem the poet/novelist James Joyce (with an early word-centrism depicted in his "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.") Today as a proudly professional performance poet – excuse my intrusive and I promise you inadvertent alliteration – I employ the stage-name (Le) MotMista…

Aidan Howard
Aidan Howard

@TirzahDuncan @Aidan Howard The Greek prefix "a-" (or "an-" before a vowel) is "not", more in the sense of "without" rather than of pure negation. Thus "apathy" (without feeling), "apolitical" (without political interest or affiliation), "atheist" (without a belief in God or gods, and NOT "believing that gods do not exist", which is "antitheist"), "amoral" (a hybrid or 'bastard' word for without morality, and NOT "having bad morals", which is "immoral"). The word "apathetic" has come to mean bored or lacklustred or not involved only in more recent years.

As an atheist, I sometimes like to tease theists when I see that they are reactive and defensive rather than considering. So I will say that "God is irrational and unreasonable." They will reply that God is perfectly reasonable and rational. So I will ask them, "Please, rationalise God for me. Are you able to give reasoning for God?" Of course, they cannot. God is, they tell me, beyond our ability to reason it or to rationalise it. "Therefore, God is unreasonable (unable to be reasoned) and irrational (unable to be rationalised)." THEY have taken these words to mean "not fair" or "not acceptable". Our language is full of such words.

Aidan Howard
Aidan Howard

@MotMista Thank you for your lovely words. I too am a poet, and am now attempting to branch into the novel. I have won several poetry competitions and have been Guest Poet at numerous events and have been published in numerous anthologies. For me, the creative process here is not just about being clever and erudite with words, but it is based on an utter LOVE of the language. I like to roll around in the words and to milk their sound as much as their sense. It saddens me the way that in our modern education systems (plural for its international disreputation) we now take the easy route of teaching our young that as long as the other person thinks that they understand our grunts and whines, then we have "communicated". And all of the glory and the artistry is gone. While "The Greats" have shown us that five words can change the world, today we might receive a letter in which five paragraphs tell us absolutely nothing. I despair.

TirzahDuncan
TirzahDuncan

@Aidan Howard @TirzahDuncan Well, being bored or lackluster can sometimes look a lot like being without emotion. :P But yeah, I get it. "He expressed only apathy on the subject," is just as common a use of the word, in my experience.

I had not parsed "apathetic" before, and had not known that "pathetic" meant "of the emotion," so I immediately put it together with "a-" and, obviously, got original-usage pathetic about it. X)


Hah--as an enthusiastic theist myself, I'm not sure that I would have caught your wordy shenanigans, but you're right, of course. I have often, and with all respect, considered that God seems to get a kick out of being hilariously paradoxical.

MotMista
MotMista

@Aidan Howard @MotMista Aidan, your poetic impulse and accomplishments are certainly cause for cheer in the face of whatever societal malaise might provoke despair… Might I suggest you choose the former over the latter? I would love to see some of your work – is any of it online, perhaps in a blog, forum, or even on YouTube? If so, kindly direct me to it! [!mm]

Sr Gunti
Sr Gunti

I disagree with "Overlook". In the first example you quoted, you are looking for "Oversee".

pentamom
pentamom

@Sr Gunti I have seen "overlook" used in older English writing to mean literally "look over," (as in someone viewing a landscape, for example) however. That's definitely a contronym.

Willswench
Willswench

In your "sanction" example.  The second instance of sanction is not a verb.  Just saying.


DebbieWolosky
DebbieWolosky

Seed [verb]. To remove seeds from a vegetable or fruit.

I will seed the cucumber prior to adding it to our salad

Seed [adj]. Describing a bread with seeds added to the dough.

We prefer a seeded rye.

KaylaMarieUlfig
KaylaMarieUlfig

In your second example, "seeded" is used as an adjective. Not as a verb.

GeorgeMorris2
GeorgeMorris2

@KaylaMarieUlfig True, but the parallel holds up if you contrive a sentence such as, "I will seed the dough before I bake it."

Ebony Redfern
Ebony Redfern

I'm not going to correct every one of these, but I must draw particular attention to "peruse." 

Russell Prupis
Russell Prupis

@Ebony Redfern Miriam Webster defines the word "peruse" as

a: to examine or consider with attention and in detail : study

b: to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner

No need to correct everyone when they aren't incorrect.

GeorgeMorris2
GeorgeMorris2

I disagree about "overlook" and "ravel."  I have never seen or heard "overlook" used to mean "monitor" or "inspect."  For that, I would use "oversee" -- a seeming synonym of "overlook" that isn't.  I have also never encountered "ravel" used to mean "unravel."  

TerriTulsiPriyaLauria
TerriTulsiPriyaLauria

@GeorgeMorris2 How about this one? 

Oversight:

  1. an unintentional failure to notice or do something."He said his failure to pay for the tickets was an oversight"
  2. the action of overseeing something. "Effective oversight of the financial reporting process"

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