One of the more curious phenomena of language is the contronym (also called an “antagonym”), which is when a word has come to represent two opposite meanings. An example of a contronym would be "sanction," which can mean either "to punish" ("the US government sanctioned Libya") or "to bless" ("their union was sanctioned by the priest"). Similarly, "to draw the curtains" could mean "to open the curtains" or "to close the curtains," depending upon the context.

Another example of a contronym might be a word that has one meaning in one dialect and the opposite meaning in another dialect. In standard US English, "to table a bill" means to remove it from consideration (such as in Congress). North of the border, in standard Canadian English, "to table a bill" means to start discussions regarding the proposed legislation. I was talking to a US immigrant to Canada, and I'd asked about a bill that was scheduled to go before Parliament. She simply answered "it was already tabled." I wasn't sure whether she meant the US meaning she had learnt when growing up or the Canadian usage to which she may have been exposed. She must have been unaware of the difference in meanings because she looked at me, somewhat exasperated, and replied, "the bill died!"

And how can we forget the slang use of the word "hell"? In the summer, Chicago can be "hotter than hell," while six months later the same city can be "colder than hell."

I suspect that these linguistic paradoxes may have developed through a process known as "semantic shift," whereby a word's meaning can change over time. For instance, a "dairy" traditionally means a place where milk-based products are produced and/or sold. In New Zealand English nowadays, a "dairy" is a convenience store, although this is not an example of a contronym.

(posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken)


Kim W. said...

My personal favorites are sect/secular and the old vs. new slang-ish meaning of "livid."

Great post and great blog!

mj said...

Thanks for visiting!

Anonymous said...

Some of these opposed meanings come not from a semantic "shift" so much as a pivot...a core concept that can be swung in opposite ways, depending on context. Take sanction. At its root it deals with legal action (originally church law - it's cognate with "sanctity"). Well, some laws establish things and some laws prohibit them, but though the results may be "opposed" the action of carrying out law is essentially the same. "Drawing" a curtain merely means pulling or dragging...whether closed or open is simply an accident of the curtain's initial position which technically has nothing to do with the meaning of the verb at all. Your example of hell? That's not opposite meaning so much as an example of "hell" as a term of extremity - like "a hell of a good time". (Though if you want to go all Dantean, there ARE spots in hell that are hot and others that are cold!)
It's like when people say "In Hawaiian, the same word means 'hello' and 'goodbye'! How weird is that"! But the word in question, 'aloha', actually MEANS 'love.' It's said in welcome, it's said on departure ... and isn't it nice to know you're loved whether coming or going?

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insightful post. I suppose that for these examples, "pivot" would probably be more appropriate than "shift" since it is the initial concept being spun in a different way at the same time since rather than one meaning replacing another completely over time.

The reason why I used "semantic shift" is because initially many contronyms (including "sanction") had only one meaning that was extended gradually over time to encompass the opposite meaning, as well. There is an initial meaning and an equally valid opposite meaning resulting from this pivot (or shift) at some point.

A contronym is defined as "A contronym is like a word that has undergone semantic reversal, only the tension has not eased: the word still preserves its original meaning, along with a contradictory -- if not exactly counterposed -- meaning." ( http://www.langmaker.com/ml0104.htm).

"As hell" may be a special exception and may have always meant "extremely" in such flexible terms. Maybe it has not. Practically speaking, however, considering it can be used to modify opposite adjectives, the term does appear to contradict itself, such as when someone is described as "funny as hell" and the next person as "boring as hell."
Cheers, Silas