Flexibility of English — Words That Are Their Own Opposites

The flexibility of the English language has always been a source of fascination for me. In the past, I’ve written about the origins of words and expressions, and how word meanings change over time. Recently, I’ve found another example in an article entitled “25 Words That Are Their Own Opposites” by Judith Herman (https://getpocket.com/explore/item/25-words-that-are-their-own-opposites).

It’s no secret that most English words have multiple meanings. But some have evolved so far in flexibility that they can be used in contradictory ways.

For example, sanction can mean “give official permission or approval for (an action)” or just the opposite, “impose a penalty on.” Ms. Herman asks us to decipher the following sentence — “Because of the agency’s oversight, the corporation’s behavior was sanctioned.” What?

Even common words can be used as opposites. Left can mean either remaining or departed. Fast can be used as “moving rapidly” (running fast), or “fixed, unmoving” (holding fast). Off could be “deactivated” (to turn off), but also “activated” (the alarm went off).

And so it goes. This type of word is called a contronym — a word with two opposite meanings. But since this is English, they can also be called a contranym, auto-antonym, antagonym, enantiodrome, self-antonym, or antilogy. And if this really interests you, check out “75 Contronyms” by Mark Nichol (http://www.dailywritingtips.com/75-contronyms-words-with-contradictory-meanings/).

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