An auto-antonym, also known as a contranym, is a word that has two opposing meanings. It has a homograph (a word of the same spelling) that has a contradictory or opposite meaning. They usually result from the word, or similar sounding words, arriving in English from two separate languages and retaining both meanings. However, sometimes they are a result of a old word taking on a new colloquial meaning.
Here are some examples:
Cool can mean good or pleasant, but it can also mean less than agreeable. Compare the following:
‘The play was cool.’
‘The play received a cool reception.’
Dusting can mean removing dust or, in the case of fingerprints, applying dust.
Fast can either mean to do something quickly or not to move at all as in ‘holding fast’.
Left is another: ‘after he left she was left.’ It means both to go and to remain.
Weather as a verb has the contradictory meanings of withstanding and wearing away.
‘They weathered the storm.’
‘It was weathered by the storm.’
For your writing, it is worth being aware of auto-antonyms so that you can spot any usage that might be confusing. Additionally, you can purposefully use words with contradictory meanings to give ambiguity or intrigue to your text. This is sometimes seen in poetry.
Can you think of any other auto-antonyms or good examples of their usage? Tell me in the comments!
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A homonym is a word that is identical to another word either in sound or spelling, but differs from it in meaning. It comes from the Greek homos meaning ‘same’. Homonyms can be divided into two sub-types: homophones (from the Greek ‘same’ and phone, ‘sound’) and homograph (‘same’ and graphe,‘writing’).
These are homonyms that are also homographs; they are spelt the same but pronounced differently:
Capsule – Homonym
- ‘The bandage was wound around the wound.’
- ‘The farm was used to produce produce.’
These homonyms are also homophones; they are spelt differently but pronounced the same:
- ‘I will die if you dye that pink.’
- ‘Can you see that ewe by the yew?’
- ‘That boat shop has got a sail sale on.’
Homophones can often be the root cause of common spelling errors: your and you’re, for example. They are also the basis of many glorious puns and jokes. Here are a few courtesy of my favourite joke book (Tim Vine, you are a genius!):
- The other day I sent my girlfriend a huge pile of snow. I rang her and said, ‘did you get my drift?’
- My dog always misinterprets things I say. I say ‘heel’ and he goes down the hospital and does what he can.
- So I went to the cinema and saw a very sad film. The guy behind me started wailing. I got hit in the back of the head with a harpoon.
- She said ‘I’m going to dig a hole in the ground and fill it with water.’ I thought, she means well.
Test your understanding by telling me which of the above jokes are based on homophones and which are homographs. Answers in the comments please!
Tell me your favourite homonym-based joke in the comments!
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