Some words are their own worst enemies, or at least their own opposites. They’re called contronyms, auto-antonyms, antagonyms, and several other names—but whatever you call them, they’re confusing. A previous article rounded up 25 of these contrary critters, but wait, there’s more ...
The uproar was literally earth shattering in 2013 when the editors of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary announced that literally could mean its opposite: figuratively. Well, remember: dictionaries don’t legislate what words should mean; they just describe how speakers of a language use them. And as the Oxford English Dictionary notes, literally has been used colloquially to mean figuratively for literally eons. As Frances Brooke wrote in 1769: “He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies.”
It’s not really an apology unless you say you’re sorry for something you did, right? But what if you’re not the least bit sorry and you make a reasoned defense of your actions or anything else you feel is misunderstood or unappreciated, like Philip Sidney’s An Apology for Poetry? Who’s sorry now?
To cull means either to pick the best (now usually said of a literary selection) or to remove the worst or weakest (in forestry or wildlife management).
A dike can be either a wall to prevent flooding or a ditch.
Enjoin means to urge someone to do something or to prohibit someone from doing something by issuing an injunction. “He enjoined him to return to his duties” vs. “the miners were enjoined from striking.”
Superb or meh? Fine means excellent (for example, a fine wine) or barely acceptable (“OK. That’s fine. Whatever”).
7. First degree
First degree means least severe in reference to a burn, but most severe in the case of a murder charge.
Garnish means to add a decorative touch, such as a lemon slice, to food, but it can also mean to take away, as with wages.
It can mean either a disadvantage that prevents equal achievement or an advantage provided to ensure equality.
A reservation could be either a firm commitment or a hesitation about something. “Will you be dining with us tonight?” “Yes, we have reservations.” Or is it, “No, we have reservations”?
When a cell or organ secretes something, it brings it forth, but when people secrete treasure or a document, they hide it. In a 2012 Word Snooper post, Lexie Kahn divulged the secret origin of secrete.
Stakeholder can mean someone who has a stake in an enterprise, or a bystander who holds the stake for those placing a bet.
Top means to put something on top or to take the top off. She topped the tree so it wouldn’t brush the ceiling, then she topped it with a star.
A trip is either a journey or a stumble. If you take a trip running for the plane, you’re not going anywhere.
Variety can refer to a particular type, or many types. The large nursery offers a variety of roses, but the smaller place has only one variety.
16. Wind up
When you wind something up are you preparing it to start or stop? That depends on whether it’s an old fashioned clock or a long-winded speech.