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Auto-antonyms

An auto-antonym, also called contronym or contranym, is a word or phrase which contradicts itself.

Published: 04th April 2016 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th April 2016 11:19 AM   |  A+A-

A reader from Hyderabad has sent in this query:   “What is auto-antonym?  I looked for the word in a dictionary but I did not find its meaning. Could you please explain it with some examples?”  

An auto-antonym, also called contronym or contranym, is a word or phrase which contradicts itself.  It means the word or phrase has two opposite meanings. Look at this example:

•  I asked the maid to dust the furniture but she put the dust on it.  When I questioned her, she replied, “I did what you asked me to do.”

ENGLISH.jpgThe maid did not understand what her boss had meant.  The boss wanted the maid to take the dust off the furniture but she put the dust on it.  What was intended by the boss was not conveyed clearly by him as the word ‘dust’ carries ambiguity.  It has two distinct meanings: i) to put dust on something, and ii) to take the dust off.  The first meaning is the opposite of the second one.  So, the word ‘dust’ is an auto-antonym.  If the boss had known the ambiguity in the word, he would have made it clear to the maid.

Consider this example: 

• It was due to the teacher’s oversight, the students were punished.

Does the sentence mean the teacher oversaw something or the teacher was inattentive or failed to do something?  The word ‘oversight’ is ambiguous. It has two distinct meanings: i) failure to notice or do something, and ii) the action of overseeing (supervising) something.  It is an auto-antonym.  We can understand the meaning of the word only from the context.  The context in the sentence is not sufficient to figure out the actual meaning of the term ‘oversight’.

Let us consider a few more auto-antonyms:   biannual, clip, fast, sanction, screen

The word ‘biannual’ means ‘once in two years’ and it also means ‘twice a year’.  These are two different meanings.

• “Is it a biannual journal?”  “Yes, it is brought out twice a year. “

• “Is the ICC World T20 a biannual event?”  “Yes, it happens once in two years.”

The word ‘clip’ means ‘to attach’ and ‘to cut off’.  These are two distinct and opposite meanings. 

• The teacher asked the students to clip all the sheets of their assignments together.

• I don’t allow anyone to clip the flowers from the plants.

The word ‘fast’ means ‘fixed in place’ and it also means ‘moving quickly’.  

The word ‘sanction’ has these meanings:  i) give official permission or approval for an action, and ii) impose a penalty on.   Here are examples:

•  The sanction of the Director of Administration is necessary to release the fund for the project.

• Some countries opposed the imposition of European Union (EU) trade sanctions on Libya.

Most politicians can be called auto-antonyms as they have the habit of contradicting themselves.

Dr Albert P’ Rayan

is an ELT Resource Person and Professor of English.

He can be contacted at rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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