Friday Fact: Some Words Are Their Own Opposites

November’s a contradictory month. Just look at my new header from Zen, which has earth and sky, reflection and reality, bare branches and watercolor clouds, green grass and dead leaves, chilly blues and warm oranges, all in a picture he doesn’t even remember taking.

It’s a strange and beautiful world, isn’t it?

November is gray skies that make the thoughts go wistful and deep, chill winds, cold rain, a delicious feast turned into washing-up and leftovers going off.

But it’s also brilliant blue skies, leaves of gold and red, holiday excitement in the air, firesides, good books, warm beds and the full moon glimpsed through bare branches.

In the spirit of this contradiction, I bring you this week’s Friday Fact: Some words are their own opposites.


Check out these auto-antonymic words (letters and numbers indicate sources and contributors as listed on this page, from which I got most of these):

anon : Immediately [Archaic] or soon vs. Later (3) {M}

anxious: Full of mental distress because of apprehension of danger or misfortune [in effect, seeking to avoid] (We were anxious about the nearby gunshots.) vs. Eager or looking forward to (Until you returned, I was anxious to see you.) (1)

apparent: Not clear or certain (For now, he is the apparent winner of the contest.) vs. obvious (The solution to the problem was apparent to all.) (1) {I}

assume: To actually have (To assume office) vs. To hope to have (“He assumed he would be elected.”) (3) {M}

avocation: A hobby vs. a regular occupation [and one could say it’s a triple antagonym if you agree that the archaic meaning of “a distraction” is the opposite of working (even at a hobby) and if you agree that the obsolete meaning of “a calling away” takes you away from (the opposite of participating in) your hobbies, work, and even your distractions!] (1)

awful: Extremely unpleasant, ugly vs. Awe-inspiring [typically, a feeling of admiration] (1)

something boned or deboned has had the same thing done its bones

bound: Moving (“I was bound for Chicago”) vs. Unable to move (“I was bound to a post”, or less literally, “I was bound to my desk”) (3) {S}

buckle: to hold together (e.g. buckle your belt) vs. to fall apart (e.g., buckle under pressure) {AQ}

bull: A solemn edict or mandate vs. Nonsense or worthless information (3) {M}

cleave is both to cling and to separate

clip: to attach vs. to cut off (1) {AH}{AS}

dust: To remove dust vs. To apply dust (as in fingerprinting) {H}

effectively: in effect (doing the equivalent of the action but not the real thing) vs. with effect (doing the action and doing it well) [Contrast “he is effectively lying” (colloquial?) with “he is lying effectively”] {AD}

enjoin: To order someone to do something vs. To stop someone from doing something [such as in law by an injunction] (1) {D}

fast: Moving rapidly vs. Unable to move (“I was held fast to my bed.”) (3) {S}

fix: to restore to function (fixing the refrigerator) vs. to make non-functional (fixing the dog) {AZ}

fearful: Causing fear vs. Being afraid (1) {A}

impregnable: able to be impregnated; also able to be impregnated

incorporate: When a village is incorporated, it is formed, but when it is incorporated into a city, the village is destroyed {O}

inflammable [a pseudo-antagonym!]: Burns easily vs. [the incorrect assumption by many that the prefix in- makes it mean:] Does not burn [Only the first definition is correct; the risk of confusion has removed this word from gasoline trucks!] (4) {J}

last: Just prior vs. final (My last book will be my last publication) {Y}

left: To remain vs. to have gone (Of all who came, only Fred’s left. [Does it mean he’s the only one who still remains or that he’s the first to depart?]) {AB}

license: Liberty or permission to do something vs. Undue or excessive freedom or liberty (1) {K}

livid: Pale, ashen vs. dark gray-blue (and sometimes corrupted to mean bright red!) (1) {AW}

overlook: to pay attention to, to inspect (“We had time to overlook the contract.”) vs. to ignore (1) {AN}

oversight: Watchful and responsible care vs. An omission or error due to carelessness (1) {E}

presently: Now vs. after some time {BB}

quite: Completely vs. Not completely (e.g., quite empty [totally empty]; quite full [not completely full, just nearly so]) (3) {M} Hm. See comments.

ravel: to disentangle or unravel vs. to tangle or entangle (1) {X}

recover: hide away (cover again) vs. bring out [hyphenated] (The dinosaur bones were exposed by the flood but then re-covered with dirt, hiding them again; centuries later, the paleontologists recovered them by removing the dirt.) {T}

restive: refusing to move (forward) (a restive horse) vs. Restless (moving around) (1) {M}

root: To establish (The seed took root.) vs. To remove entirely (usually used with “out”, e.g., to root out dissenters) {AG}

sanction: Support for an action (They sanctioned our efforts.) vs. A penalty for an action (The Congressman was sanctioned for inappropriate behavior.) (1) {D} {O}

sanguine: (Now poetic) Causing or delighting in bloodshed [according to contributor, also describes a person worked up into a bloody rage] vs. A person hopeful or confident of success [essentially someone calm about something] (2) {B}

scan: to examine closely vs. to look over hastily (1) {S} {AI}

a seeded orange has actually has its seeds removed

shop: To search with the intent to buy (“I shopped for a book at several stores.”) vs. To search with the intent to sell (“I shopped my manuscript to several publishers.”) {R}

transparent: Easily seen (“His motives were transparent.”) invisible {AL}

trim: To add things to (trim a Christmas tree) vs. or take pieces off (trim hair) {AT}{AU}

See also, antagonyms, iposnyms.

Author’s note: Stay tuned for a new weekly post starting next week, Sunday Song. Self-explanatory. Possibly coming next week: Nusrat Ali Fateh Khan.

4 responses to “Friday Fact: Some Words Are Their Own Opposites

  1. Jennifer, first of all, what a lovely preamble to your Friday Fact and a masterful segue into it. And, of course, word freak that I am, I loved reading all those words that are their own opposites. I have often commented on how “shelled,” “pitted,” and “skinned” can have opposite meanings, but I’d never thought there were so many “antagonyms.” (I love, too, the word “antagonym” and that he showed his own derivation of the word he created!)

  2. Interesting. But I don’t think “quite” belongs on the list:

    quite: Completely vs. Not completely (e.g., quite empty [totally empty]; quite full [not completely full, just nearly so]) (3) {M}

    It’s a simple modifier meaning ~”completely, wholly, totally, nearly”. In the example given, “empty” and “full” are the antonyms — the meaning of “quite” remains constant.

  3. Totally agree, Wil. That one slipped in (as some others I found iffy did not) in the morning rush to post.

  4. I echo Beth (not surprisingly!). I’ve long been fascinated with words. My particular favorites on your list: awful, buckle, left, and overlook. How did we get to these double meanings, I wonder? Great FF!

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