Did you know that there are words in English that have two completely opposite meanings? Find it hard to believe? In this edition of ‘Vocabulary Matters’ we introduce you to an interesting category of words and phrases called “contronyms” (also spelled as “contranyms”, or referred to as “auto antonyms”). A contronym is a word with two opposite meanings or a word with multiple meanings, one of which is the opposite of another meaning. The main element to understanding the meaning of a contronym is by looking at the context in which it has been used.

Take a look at the following contronyms..


Meaning 1: To sprinkle (something) with fine particles
Example: Dusting iced sugar on pancakes is my favorite part of making pancakes.

Meaning 2: To remove fine particles (from something)
Example: I have dusted the living room using the new dry cleaner and it looks immaculate now.


Meaning 1: To secure; A bar that slides into a socket to fasten a door or window.
Example: Ensure that you bolt the door securely before going to sleep.

Meaning 2: To flee; To move very fast, especially as a result of being frightened.
Example: Frightened by the car horn, the horse bolted.


Meaning 1: To command; To direct or impose by authoritative order or with urgent admonition
Example: The PM is expected to enjoin the Ministry of Education to implement the new policy soon.

Meaning 2: To prohibit or forbid; To prohibit by a judicial order; put an injunction on
Example: The prosecutor’s office hopes the court will enjoin the city from enforcing the law.


Meaning 1: To support; To support someone or something so that they do not fall down
Example: There are two large wooden supports that hold up the roof.

Meaning 2: Impede; Delay or block the movement or progress of someone or something
Example: Work is yet to start because of hold-ups in obtaining planning permission.


Meaning 1: To adhere; To hold on (to something) firmly and closely or loyally and unwaveringly
Example: People in the remote mountain villages still cleave to their old traditions.

Meaning 2: Separate; To separate into distinct parts
Example: The political party was cleaved by internal bickering.


Meaning 1: Extinguish something that is burning
Example: A downpour of rain put out the children's bonfire.

Meaning 2: Generate; :ay something out ready for use
Example: During this lockdown, the food put out by you for stray dogs can save them. In fact, it could be their only sustenance.


Meaning 1: To permit; To give approval or permission, especially formal or legal
Example: The conference gave its official sanction to the change of policy.

Meaning 2: To prohibit; An official order, such as the stopping of trade, that is taken against a country in order to make it obey international law
Example: The UN has imposed punitive sanctions on the invading country.


Meaning 1: To fasten; To clasp or secure with an implement
Example: Diya was looking for a stapler to clip the letters together.

Meaning 2: Detach; To cut or cut off with
Example: I'm going to clip the hedge this weekend.


Meaning 1: To provide; To distribute
Example: Most aspiring actors give out cards with their own or the agency's phone number on it.

Meaning 2: To breakdown or fail; To stop because of lack of supply
Example: My money was beginning to give out and there were no jobs to be found.


Meaning 1: To supervise; To watch or organize a job or an activity to make certain that it is being done correctly
Example: The teacher will overlook the students' behavior on the field trip.

Meaning 2: To neglect; To fail to notice or consider something or someone
Example: I am prepared to overlook her mistakes this time but not the next time.

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Context and common sense to distinguish between the different meanings of words are crucial to understand contranyms. If you are having trouble understanding a sentence, it might be because the speaker or writer is using a less common meaning of a word. Look up the word in a dictionary to learn all its meanings. Try to think about the word's context. Sometimes you can understand a contronym's meaning by thinking about the other words that come in the sentence with it.

It takes time to learn such nuances of English. What helps is to further develop your vocabulary by learning one synonym and one antonym of any new word you encounter. The more you keep doing this, the more layered and rich your understanding and usage of English will become.

Don’t forget to check for more lists of contronyms to up your word game. Comment below and share your favorite contronym examples!

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