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  • Writer's picturearniebrucecooper

English Oddity #1: Contronyms

If you’ve been speaking English even for a relatively short time, you already know that it’s a strange language. Here’s an English oddity that you probably never heard of: an unusual linguistic phenomenon called "contronyms."


Contronyms are words that have two or more meanings that are opposite or contradictory to each other. These words can be a real head-scratcher for non-native speakers, and they can sometimes cause confusion or even humorous misunderstandings.

For example, the word "cleave" can mean "to stick together" (as in "the magnet cleaved to the fridge"), or it can mean "to split apart" (as in "the axe cleaved the log in two"). Similarly, the word "fast" can mean "quick" (as in "he ran fast") or "immovable" (as in "the boat was fastened to the dock").


Contronyms can be especially tricky in technical contexts, where precise and unambiguous language is often required. For example, the word "sanction" can mean "to approve" (as in "the project was sanctioned by the committee"), or it can mean "to punish" (as in "the country was sanctioned for violating international law"). In a technical discussion, using the wrong meaning of a word like "sanction" could lead to a serious miscommunication.


Here are two more examples of contronyms:


"Weather" - This word can mean "to withstand" (as in "the house weathered the storm"), or it can mean "to erode" (as in "the rock was weathered by wind and rain"). In a technical context, using "weather" to mean "withstand" instead of "erode" could lead to misinterpretation.


"Seed" - This word can mean "to plant" (as in "he seeded the garden with tomatoes"), or it can mean "to remove" (as in "he seeded the grapes before eating them"). In a technical context, using "seed" to mean "remove" instead of "plant" could lead to confusion.


So, what can you do to avoid problems caused by contronyms? Here are a few tips:


§ Pay close attention to the context in which a word is used. Often, the context will make it clear which meaning of a contronym is intended.


§ Be aware of common contronyms and their meanings. The more you know about contronyms, the less likely you are to be tripped up by them.


§ If in doubt, ask for clarification. It's always better to ask for clarification than to make assumptions that could lead to misunderstanding.


No doubt, contronyms can be a challenging aspect of the English language, but with a little awareness and attention, you can avoid confusion and use language effectively in technical contexts.

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