I had the distinct honor and privilege of taking part in the wedding ceremony of a dear friend (and former Current editor) last weekend. An opportunity for a column sprang forth from the event.
As part of his reading, the officiant examined the word “cleave,” which can mean both “to separate from” and “to adhere firmly to.” “Cleave” is a contronym: a word with multiple meanings, at least one of which is the reverse of its other meanings.
Contronyms are also called auto-antonyms or, my personal favorite, antagonyms. They occur when distinct words morph through time to have the same form, or when words evolve to have multiple, contradictory meanings.
You can get a lot of fun wordplay out of contronyms, especially in poetry – or, as much fun as people who aren’t weird poetry nerds like me can have. They’re a good talking piece too, though. In the interest of augmenting your linguistic party banter repertoire, here are some other contronyms to keep in the quiver:
“Fast” can mean both “moving quickly” and “not moving,” i.e. “The truck is stuck fast in the mud.”
“Off” can mean both “deactivated” and “activated:” “I turned off the alarm after it went off.”
“Oversight” can mean both “supervision” and “something overlooked:” “We need more oversight of employees to prevent further costly oversights.”
“Splice,” much like “cleave,” can mean both “to join” and “to separate.”
“Consult” can mean both asking for advice and giving advice.
“Garnish” can mean both “to add to” or “embellish” and “to take away,” i.e. “My wages were garnished after I failed to pay court fees.”
Many of these words became contronyms through natural processes as our language formed, and so their contradictory meanings do not seem strange to us. Consider a more contemporary example: the word “literally.”
“Literally” means “in actuality.” However, through its constant misuse, Merriam-Webster now says the word can be defined as “figuratively,” an antonym. Though I find this situation particularly groan-inducing, there you have it: the evolution of language in action. It’s both beautiful and terrible – like a lion hunting a gazelle. Or, you know, something less dramatic.