Book with question marks — contronym
What is a contronym? / Stock photo

The Curious Contronym

Originally, the term was coined by Joseph T. Shipley in 1960. A contronym is a curious phenomenon in language. It is a word with two opposite meanings. The meaning depends on the context.

A contronym is both a homograph and an antonym. A homograph is a word that has the same written form, but has a different meaning. For example, agape means both love and wide open.

An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another like bad and good. Bad is also an example to illustrate what a contronym is because it either means not good or very good. So for the rock stars out there, you’re bad really means you’re good.

Some contronyms come from different meanings between two dialects. In British English, you might say ‘to table a bill’, which means ‘to put it up for debate’ while in American English one might say, ‘to remove it from debate’.

Contronyms are also present in other languages; in French, hôte means either host or guest while in Hawaiian, aloha means both hello and goodbye. The same is said for ciao in Italian.

Synonyms of a contronym are…

  • a contranym,
  • an antagonym
  • an autantonym
  • a Janus word
  • an enantiodrome
  • an self-antonym
  • an antilogy

To explore other examples, we recommend you visit the Oxford English dictionary.