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Be Careful with Words That Are Their Own Opposites: Contronyms

By Barbara McClintock, C. Tr.

Back in the early 1980s, I was asked to use the word oversight in the annual report I was translating. I warned the VP, Marketing that it was ambiguous, but he said that the president of the trust company I was working for wanted it. Well, he was the boss. Oversight would soon become
a popular buzzword meaning “management” or “supervision.” Conversely, it means something you have forgotten that results in an error, hence my hesitation. However, the context should tell you the meaning when you see a contronym as shown in the two examples below.

  • The error was a planning oversight.
  • The manager was given oversight of the entire project.

Well-known author Richard Lederer popularized the term contronym for words with opposite meanings in Curious Contronyms. Some people call them Janus words, after the Roman god Janus, who is always depicted with two faces looking in different directions. Here are some more examples:

  • Compensation (contronym) vs. remuneration

N.B. Compensation means payment for services rendered or (compensatory) damages. Remuneration is often considered a synonym. However, remuneration means payment for services rendered in particular circumstances, such as the remuneration of the directors on a Board of Directors, and it never means damages. Employees usually receive compensation rather than remuneration. I had quite an argument about this with the VP, HR at the same trust company.

  • Sanction can mean either to allow or to restrict.

    Sanction is a very ambiguous term, e.g.,
    • Iran was sanctioned for producing “weapons of mass destruction.” Here, “producing weapons of mass destruction” is negative so sanctioned must mean penalized.
    • Do you sanction punishment? Depending on the context, sanction may mean to agree with in this case.
  • Damage vs. damages: In legal writing, damage (sing.) means harm and damages (pl.) means money awarded to compensate someone for harm.

Some other contronyms are bolt, cleave, clip, consult, custom, execute, and garnish. Have fun with words!

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