25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites

Images: iStock
Images: iStock

Here’s an ambiguous sentence for you: “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” Does that mean, "Because the agency oversaw the company’s behavior, they imposed a penalty for some transgression," or does it mean, "Because the agency was inattentive, they overlooked the misbehavior and gave it their approval by default"? We’ve stumbled into the looking-glass world of contronyms—words that are their own antonyms.

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio(n-), from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean "give official permission or approval for (an action)" or conversely, "impose a penalty on."

2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs with contrary meanings, “oversee” and “overlook.” Oversee, from Old English ofersēon ("look at from above") means "supervise" (medieval Latin for the same thing: super-, "over" plus videre, "to see.") Overlook usually means the opposite: "to fail to see or observe; to pass over without noticing; to disregard, ignore."

3. Left can mean either remaining or departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars, who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the ladies are left.)

4. Dust, along with the next two words, is a noun turned into a verb meaning either to add or to remove the thing in question. Only the context will tell you which it is. When you dust are you applying dust or removing it? It depends whether you’re dusting the crops or the furniture.

5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a tomato you remove them.

6. Stone is another verb to use with caution. You can stone some peaches, but please don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says he likes to get stoned).

7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it can also mean either adding or taking away. Arising from an Old English word meaning "to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange," trim came to mean "to prepare, make ready." Depending on who or what was being readied, it could mean either of two contradictory things: "to decorate something with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a finished appearance" or "to cut off the outgrowths or irregularities of." And the context doesn’t always make it clear. If you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel or a chain saw?

8. Cleave can be cleaved into two homographs, words with different origins that end up spelled the same. Cleave, meaning "to cling to or adhere," comes from an Old English word that took the forms cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. Cleave, with the contrary meaning "to split or sever (something)"—as you might do with a cleaver—comes from a different Old English word, clēofan. The past participle has taken various forms: cloven, which survives in the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a “cleft palate” or “cleaved.”

9. Resign works as a contronym in writing. This time we have homographs, but not homophones. Resign, meaning "to quit," is spelled the same as resign, meaning "to sign up again," but it’s pronounced differently.

10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in running fast, or "fixed, unmoving," as in holding fast. If colors are fast they will not run. The meaning "firm, steadfast" came first; the adverb took on the sense "strongly, vigorously," which evolved into "quickly," a meaning that spread to the adjective.

11. Off means "deactivated," as in to turn off, but also "activated," as in the alarm went off.

12. Weather can mean "to withstand or come safely through" (as in the company weathered the recession) or it can mean "to be worn away" (the rock was weathered).

13. Screen can mean to show (a movie) or to hide (an unsightly view).

14. Help means "assist," unless you can’t help doing something, when it means "prevent."

15. Clip can mean "to bind together" or "to separate." You clip sheets of paper to together or separate part of a page by clipping something out. Clip is a pair of homographs, words with different origins spelled the same. Old English clyppan, which means "to clasp with the arms, embrace, hug," led to our current meaning, "to hold together with a clasp." The other clip, "to cut or snip (a part) away," is from Old Norse klippa, which may come from the sound of a shears.

16. Continue usually means to persist in doing something, but as a legal term it means stop a proceeding temporarily.

17. Fight with can be interpreted three ways. “He fought with his mother-in-law” could mean "They argued," "They served together in the war," or "He used the old battle-ax as a weapon." (Thanks to linguistics professor Robert Hertz for this idea.)

18. Flog, meaning "to punish by caning or whipping," shows up in school slang of the 17th century, but now it can have the contrary meaning, "to promote persistently," as in “flogging a new book.” Perhaps that meaning arose from the sense "to urge (a horse, etc.) forward by whipping," which grew out of the earliest meaning.

19. Go means "to proceed," but also "give out or fail," i.e., “This car could really go until it started to go.”

20. Hold up can mean "to support" or "to hinder": “What a friend! When I’m struggling to get on my feet, he’s always there to hold me up.”

21. Out can mean "visible" or "invisible." For example, “It’s a good thing the full moon was out when the lights went out.”

22. Out of means "outside" or "inside": “I hardly get out of the house because I work out of my home.”

23. B**ch can derisively refer to a woman who is considered overly aggressive or domineering, or it can refer to someone passive or submissive.

24. Peer is a person of equal status (as in a jury of one’s peers), but some peers are more equal than others, like the members of the peerage, the British or Irish nobility.

25. Toss out could be either "to suggest" or "to discard": “I decided to toss out the idea.”

The contronym (also spelled “contranym”) goes by many names, including auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy and Janus word (from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions). Can’t get enough of them? The folks at Daily Writing Tips have rounded up even more.

This piece originally ran in 2015.

15 Totally Tubular '80s Slang Terms

luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus
luckyvector (speech bubble), Andrii Vinnikov (background)/iStock via Getty Images Plus

The '80s were a time when everything was bigger and brighter: Hair was high; fashion was loud; even the slang was outrageous … or should we say, bodacious? Here are a few ‘80s slang terms—which were popular in the era, even if they weren’t created during the decade—that you should start working back into conversations. Throw on some leg warmers, grab your favorite scrunchie, and let’s motor!

1. Bodacious

According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, this word—a blend of bold and audacious meaning “excellent, wonderful, very enjoyable”—was coined in the 19th century but found new life in the 1970s thanks to CB radio, where it was used to reference a strong incoming signal. In 1989, it was featured heavily in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure; you can see a short clip of Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter discussing the word here.

2. Hella

According to Green’s, this adverb can mean either “a lot of” or “very, extremely, really,” and it’s an abbreviation of helluva, as in, “he had one helluva headache.”

3. Gnarly

It’s probably not a surprise that gnarly comes from gnarled. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the word originated in the 1970s as a surfing term meaning “dangerous, challenging,” perhaps in reference to rough seas. Green’s notes that gnarly can be a term of disapproval, meaning “bizarre, frightening, amazing,” or, conversely, it can be used to describe something that is “wonderful, first-rate.” It was popularized by Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982).

4. Duh

This word, also frequently used in the phrase “no duh,” is, according to Green’s, a “grunt of incomprehension ... often used as a rejoinder, implying that the first speaker is stupid.” The OED’s first citation is a 1943 Merrie Melodies cartoon: “Duh ... Well, he can't outsmart me, 'cause I'm a moron.” In 1964, The New York Times Magazine noted that the word “is the standard retort used when someone makes a conversational contribution bordering on the banal. For example, the first child says, ‘The Russians were first in space.’ Unimpressed, the second child replies (or rather grunts), ‘Duh.'"

5. Tubular

Tubular, from the Latin tubulus and the French tubulair, began its life in the 1680s as a word meaning “having the form of a tube or pipe; constituting or consisting of a tube; cylindrical, hollow, and open at one or both ends; tube-shaped.” But in the '80s, it took on a new meaning entirely—this one related to waves. According to the OED, surfers in the U.S. used it to refer to “a cresting wave: hollow and curved, so that it is well-formed for riding on,” and soon, it came to mean “the ultimate in perfection,” according to Green’s. The word (as well as many others on this list) was featured in Frank Zappa’s 1982 song “Valley Girl”: “It’s so AWESOME / It’s like TUBULAR, y’know.”

6. Eat My Shorts

That’s shorts as in underwear. This phrase dates back to the early 1970s (Green’s cites a 1975 issue of the Harvard Crimson: “They chant cheers as [...] unrefined as ‘A quart is two pints, a gallon is four quarts; Harvard men will eat Yale’s shorts’”) but you might remember it from John Hughes’s 1985 film The Breakfast Club. Later, it would be used liberally by Bart on The Simpsons.

7. Gag Me With A Spoon

This expression of disgust, dating back to 1982, apparently had other forms as well: Gag me with a blowdryer, a snow shovel, a phone book (remember those?!).

8. Radical

This adjective, meaning “extreme; outrageous; good,” originated in the late 1960s. Radical is another term borrowed from surfer slang, according to the New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, after which it “migrated into the argot of the San Fernando Valley”—a.k.a. Valley Girls—“and then into mainstream U.S. youth slang.” In 1988, it even appeared in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Green’s pinpoints the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze” of the 1990s for bringing radical to the masses. Rad, a shortened version of the word, was also a popular way to describe something you really loved (as well as the title of a 1986 BMX movie starring Lori Loughlin and Talia Shire).

9. Take a Chill Pill

When you tell someone to take a chill pill, you’re telling them to relax. According to Green’s, the phrase originated on college campuses in the early '80s.

10. Wastoid

According to The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, someone who is a wastoid is “a worthless, dim-witted person; a person whose drug and alcohol abuse is ruining their life.” The term was coined by John Hughes, who used it in The Breakfast Club: Listen for when Andrew tells Bender, “Yo wastoid, you’re not going to blaze up in here.”

11. Ralph

Apparently, in the ‘80s, instead of just ralphing—i.e., vomiting, because supposedly that’s what the act of retching sounds like—college kids would call for Ralph, according to Green’s. The verb ralph dates back to the 1960s, and you can once again find it in The Breakfast Club: “Your middle name is Ralph, as in puke.”

12. Bod

Bod dates all the way back to the ‘80s—the 1780s, according to the OED. A clipped form of body, it also refers more generally to a person, and may be a shortened form of bodach, a Scottish word for a specter. On college campuses in the 1960s, it came to mean “a physically attractive person of the opposite sex.” And when a girl asks Ferris “How’s your bod?” in 1986’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, what she’s actually asking is: How are you feeling?

13. Grody

Initially written in the mid-1960s as “groaty,” this term basically describes something that is slovenly, dirty, or super gross. If something is truly terrible, you might describe it as grody to the max. As the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1982, “Grody is used to describe a disgusting object. Moon Zappa calls her toenails ‘Grody to the max,' which means disgusting beyond belief.”

14. Motor

A verb meaning “to move quickly, to leave.” Curious about how to use it in a sentence? Look no further than this quote from the 1988 movie Heathers: “Great paté, but I gotta motor if I want to be ready for that party tonight.”

15. Veg

To veg or veg out, according to the OED, is to “To disengage mentally; to do nothing as a way of relaxing, to pass the time in (mindless) inactivity, esp. by watching television.” The OED dates the term, an abbreviation of the word vegetate, to a Toronto Globe and Mail article from 1979 that declared, “There's not the same flavor there used to be to traveling ... People just go to veg out, not to find out.” The past tense of the word can be found in The Totally True Diaries of an Eighties Roller Queen, which featured real diary entries from between 1983 and 1988: “Today I went to Tracey’s to pick up my guitar and stuff [...] I then went home and vegged out.”

The One Letter in the Alphabet That Can't Be Silent

Hafiez Razali, iStock via Getty Images
Hafiez Razali, iStock via Getty Images

The English language can be baffling at times—just look to words like phlegm, receipt, and chthonic for proof. Silent letters are unavoidable. Almost every word in the alphabet is occasionally guilty of taking up space without contributing anything, but there is one exception. According to Merriam-Webster, V is the only letter in English that consistently makes itself heard.

No matter where it appears, whether it's in love, voice, or divisive, V plays a vital role. Most letters are phonetic chameleons: That's why the C sounds different in cat and city, and why the g sounds like nothing at all in gnash. V is unique in that it never goes through an identity crisis.

There are a few letters that rival V's special status. Z is only silent in words we borrowed from the French, like chez, laissez-faire, and rendezvous. The one silent J in the entire English language appears in marijuana, a term of Spanish origin. But even accounting for words we've adopted from other tongues, there's not one example of a silent V in the English dictionary.

The prevalence of silent letters is just one frustrating aspect of our language. Here are a few more obstacles foreign speakers must encounter when learning English.

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