Interesting grammar: contronyms

“I am literally starving.” Until a few years ago this sentence could only mean one thing: that you were, without exaggeration, truthfully starving to death. But in 2013 the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary gave their definition of ‘literally’ a new meaning, one which entered the language through common usage. Now you can say you are ‘literally starving’ as a form of exaggeration (and tell grammar fusspots like me to get off your back).

Sorry Ted, you’re wrong now.

So now ‘literally’ means both ‘literally’ and its opposite, ‘metaphorically’. Welcome to the fascinating world of contronyms!

A contronym is a word with a homograph (another word of the same spelling) that is also its antonym (it means the opposite). Effectively, one word can mean two opposite things. Strange, you might think, but I’ll bet you’ve encountered all of these contronyms before.

  • Apology: this can both express contrition about an action (an apology for my behaviour), or defend one (a religious apologist).
  • Back: this can refer to the past (going back in time) and the future (push back the date).
  • Dust: as a verb, this can mean to remove dust (dusting the furniture) or to add it (dusting with icing sugar).
  • Off: this can mean to activate something (the alarm is going off) or to deactivate something (turn the light off).
  • Rent: as a verb, this can mean to borrow (I am renting this flat from the landlord) or to lend (I am renting this flat to the tenant).
  • Rock: a steady, heavy object (he’s my rock) or an unsteady shaking sensation (it rocked back and forth).
  • Screen: as a verb, this can mean to show something (he screened the movie) or to hide it (they screened the horrors from her).
  • Seed: as a verb, this can mean to add seeds (they seeded the land) or remove seeds (they seeded the fruit).
  • Trim:this can mean adding more to something (they trimmed the cake), or taking away excess (they trimmed the bushes).
  • Weather: as a verb, this can mean withstanding something (I weathered the storm) or giving way to it (it was weathered by the storm).

Can you think of any more contronyms to add to this list? Let me know!

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