Do "autoantonyms" unsettle you?

An autoantonym is a word where the antonym (opposite) of the word is the same word. So “peer” is both
• an equal; fellow (e.g. classmate)
• a nobleman; person of higher rank.

“buckle” means
• to fasten
• to come undone; give way; collapse
Here is a list of some (via kottke).

I find reading that list a bit discomforting, because for most of the words I know both meanings but their odd status has never occurred to me. I mean, “oversight”! What disturbs me is the degree to which at a conscious level I don’t know what I’m doing when I talk.

How about you?

I see no reason we should always cleave off one meaning and cleave to another.

The word ‘sanction’ has always pissed me off.


I thought of a double autoantonym.


As a verb, it can mean to get on (scale a mountain) or to take off (scale a fish). As a noun, it can mean a sequence (a musical scale) or a single item (being paid scale).

Most of these aren’t actually antonyms. For example, a “bill”, in both senses, is a document which specifies an amount of money. I don’t even see the reasoning on how the two listed meanings of “comprise” are particularly different at all, much less antonyms. “Handicap”, as in sports, is an acknowledgement of a handicap, as in disability. A moot point is one which is subject only to argument, and is therefore irrelevant for practical considerations. “Quantum”, in all senses, means discrete, without any middle ground, and actually says nothing about size. “Sanguine” just means “bloody”; in the old theory of the four humours, someone who had an excess of blood was cheerful. “Scan” means “examine”, without regards to thoroughnes. A “shank” is an end (of anything, not just a time); it doesn’t specify which end. I’ve never heard “splice” used to mean “cut in two”; it always means “join”. And “temper” means to mix something in; that intermixing might harden or soften the thing.

The word “raze” as in “They razed the building to make way for a parking lot” has always bugged me. OK when written, highly confusing when spoken, IMO.

Here’s a longer and better list, which at least marks your objections as “disputed”

Sorry, the dictionary is a slave to usage, not the other way around.

And there’s the pitch!

These things are never perfect opposites, and there’s usually a little room for interpretation on what is or isn’t an antonym. “Scale” isn’t on either of the linked lists. Can I get a ruling from the judges?

I was going to grumble about the list referring to “comprise” as an autoantonym, but Chronos beat me to it.

This is sort of the opposite, but I’m incredibly annoyed that “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing.

Give my regards to Broadway.

Depends on whether you’re a prescriptionist or a descriptionist.

It’s a short fly ball to center field!

Autoantonyms are famous in the Arabic language; there’s a whole branch of Arabic philology devoted to study of them. Although I can’t think of any offhand, I remember cataloging Arabic library books on the subject. They’re called al-a‘dâd, which means ‘the opposites’.

There’s an old joke among students of Arabic: Each Arabic word has at least three meanings: 1) What the word means. 2) The opposite of that meaning. 3) A part of a camel.

There’s a Classical Arabic phrase used a couple places in the Qur’an (e.g. verse 90:1) - lâ uqsimu - which means literally ‘I do not swear’. However, it’s always interpreted positively to mean ‘I do swear’. How bizarre. I never got that. Past ages leave behind strange quirks of meaning after the original reason for them has been forgotten, to puzzle people of later ages.

I see nobody has really taken my point, so I’ll restate it:

*What’s unsettling is the ones that don’t bug me and never have. *

Not only are they not confusing in context, I’d never even noticed the jarring meanings even though clearly at some level my brain deals effortlessly with them. It unsettles me because of what it says about my lack of self-knowledge.


[li]A view arrived at by careful consideration of the facts.[/li][li]A view accepted as true without any assessment of facts being required.[/li][/ul]

Actually it depends on whether you’re a prescriptivist or a descriptivist, and if I were the latter I wouldn’t have mentioned it. :wink:

A descriptivist is someone who says that if enough people make the same error it’s not an error anymore.