Last year I wrote about a non-word, aibohphobia, that I thought should be a word. Now I’ve got a much more practical non-term that is deserving of word status. A contronym is a word that is it own opposite. I have also seen these words referred to as antagonyms, auto-antonyms, and Janus words. Wikipedia even traces the use of contronym back to 1962.
I become most vividly aware of these words while teaching the short story, “The Guest” by Albert Camus. Before the kids even read the story, I point out that it was originally written in French, and that the original title is “L’hote,” a word that means not only guest, but also host. It’s a fine opportunity to point out the decisions translators must make, but the contradiction in the title also reflects the paradoxes and reversals of the story. It seems to me a clear case of a writer using ambiguity deliberately to increase the complexity of his story.
Many kids blurt out that it’s stupid to have a word mean its opposite and see it as a shortcoming of the French language, but I point out that we have many words like this in English, words such as
A more complete list can be found at this site.
As a side note, it’s interesting to me how many of these mean to attach or cling in one form and to separate or move in their other form. Perhaps an etymologist could explain why that is.
Slang also takes advantage of contranyms. Bad can mean good as well as something negative, and my students these days are quick to use sick when talking about really impressive things. It also makes me wonder if there is a term for when you use two different words that seem to be opposites for the same purpose. For example, something really appealing can be cool or hot.