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If you have read our antonyms page, you will know that two words with opposite meanings are called antonyms. So autoantonyms are words that are the opposite of themselves!

Auto-antonym has Greek roots meaning a word that is the opposite of itself. They have variously been called contranyms, contronyms, antilogies, Janus words (after the two-faced Greek mythical figure, from which "January" also derives), and enantiodromes.

Below is a list af many such words, and their associated opposite (or near-opposite) meanings. See the bottom of the page for an explanation of how such contradictory meanings can come about.

• to clarify
• to cast a shadow over
• anything
• nothing
• invoice (e.g. in a restaurant)
• money; banknote
• to secure in place
• to dash away suddenly
• restrained (e.g. by rope)
• to spring; leap
• to fasten
• to come undone; give way; collapse
• to adhere; stick together
• to cut apart; divide
• to fasten together; hold tightly
• to cut apart; cut off (e.g. with shears)
• to contain; include
• to be composed of; consist of
• usual; normal
• special; unique
• to remove fine particles from (e.g. when cleaning)
• to sprinkle fine particles onto
• fixed firmly in place
• moving quickly; speedy
• just meets minimum standards; satisfactory
• considerably better than average; excellent
 give out
• to produce; distribute
• to stop producing; cease functioning
• advantage (e.g. in sport)
• disadvantage; disability
 hold up
• to support; cope
• to hinder; delay
• impossible to enter (e.g. of a fortress)
• able to be impregnated
• to lend; rent out
• to borrow; hire
• departed from
• remaining
• to allow; grant permission
• to prevent (e.g. "without let or hindrance")
• actually; really
• figuratively; virtually
• archetype; example
• copy; replica
• debatable; arguable
• academic; irrelevant
• to examine; watch over
• to fail to notice; miss
• watchful care; supervision
• overlooking; omission
• an equal; fellow (e.g. classmate)
• a nobleman; person of higher rank
• to begin to move hurriedly
• stationary (e.g. "stay put")
 put out
• to generate; produce
• to extinguish; put an end to
• to pose a problem
• to solve a problem
• very small (e.g. in Physics)
• very large (e.g. "quantum leap")
• to tangle; complicate
• to disentangle; separate
• to lend; lease out
• to borrow; hire
• to quit; give up
• to sign up again
• to remove completely
• to become firmly established
• to endorse; authorise
• a punitive action
• murderous
• cheerfully optimistic
• to examine closely
• to glance at hastily
• to view; show
• to conceal; shield
• to remove seeds from
• to add seeds to
• to fix in place
• to flow; move on
• latter part of a period of time
• early part of a period of time
• to cover with a skin
• to remove the skin
• to join together
• to cut in two
• to miss (e.g. in baseball)
• to hit; collide with
• to propose; suggest
• to postpone; shelve
• to soften; mollify
• to strengthen (e.g. a metal)
• to cut pieces off (e.g. fingernails)
• to add to; ornament
• to withstand; stand up to
• to wear away
 wind up
• to start; prepare
• to end; conclude

The Origin of Autoantonyms

Bob Fradkin explains how one of the major classes of auto-antonym comes about:

Dust is part of a series of noun-verb conversions related to coverings of things. If the noun gives a covering that is natural to the thing, then the verb means remove the covering. If the covering is imposed, the verb means put the covering on.

So you get shell an egg, peel a banana, but paint the furniture, wax the floor.

Dust is interesting because it can go either way: dust the furniture (a sort of natural covering to be removed) vs. dust the crops (put stuff on them that they didn't have and wouldn't unless humans put it there). I mentioned this in my English grammar book Stalking the Wild Verb Phrase.

Related page: What is an antonym?

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