I expect most of you have heard of antonyms, and even if you haven’t heard the word, you know them and use them every day. Antonyms are words that mean the opposite. For example, hot is the antonym of cold, rich is the antonym of poor.
But what happens when we have a word that doesn’t have another antonym – it is the antonym of itself?! You are probably wondering what on earth that could mean. Well, there are some words that have two meanings which are the opposite of each other. This makes the word its own antonym. Words like this are known as contronyms.
One very common one that we shall start with is a word that you use all the time without ever thinking about it being a contronym. This is left, which can mean “gone, departed” or “still there, remaining” . If you have gone, then you have left, but if everyone else except you has gone, then you are left!
One of my favourites is dust. If you dust something, it can mean “put dust on”, or“take dust off”. Think of that if you dust a cake or dust a table!
A very similar thing happens with the word seed. This can also mean “take seeds away”, or “put seeds in”. For example, Kit seeded the pepper and then seeded the pots with peppers!
Another everyday word is fast. The ship may want to go fast, but the wind holds it fast against the docks. So, it means both “moving quickly” and “staying still”!
Let’s take a small word; off. How can this be a contronym? Well, think about your alarm clock. When it rings, it’s going off, but when it’s not ringing, it’s off!
The next two words might not be quite so ordinary or everyday, but they are great examples of contronyms. Sanction can mean “officially approve of”, but it can also mean “officially disapprove and impose penalties”! For example, the medical centre was sanctioned by the government to provide care, but unregistered doctors were sanctioned and their practices closed.
Contronyms are sometimes also known as auto-antonyms, or Janus words. Janus was the Roman god of both beginnings and endings, and his head had two faces, each looking in opposite directions. The month of January is named after him, as he could look forward to the new year and also back towards the old year!