Careful, writers! 10 words with opposite meanings

They’re called contranyms, or Janus words, and if you’re not careful they can alter the meaning of your prose.


The English language is full of words with uncommon properties.

There are backronyms, metaplasms, and neologisms. My favorite words of unusual properties are contranyms, or words that are spelled the same, but have two opposite meanings. These words are also known as Janus words, named after the Roman god of gates and doorways and of beginnings and endings.

Janus words teach us the importance of context and bring a whole new meaning to the phrase “use it in a sentence.” Here are a few examples:

Oversight. It can mean watchful care or an error or mistake. Example: Barry’s oversight of the website led to the oversight in spelling.

Cleave. It can mean to join (as in “cleave unto”) or to separate or divide. Example: Seeing that the two sentences were cleaved together, I cleaved them with a semicolon.

Garnish. It can mean to add something to or take away from. Example: Troy’s use of unnecessary adjectives to garnish his prose led to the decision to garnish his wages.

Refrain. It can mean to hold back, restrain, or to repeat. Example: Please refrain from adding a refrain to that poem.

Root. It can mean to pull up or to get something to take root. Example: We need to root out your poor writing practices before they take root.

Sanction. It can mean to prohibit or to allow. Example: You are hereby sanctioned from writing for any of our sanctioned publications.

Weather. It can mean to withstand or to wear away. Example: That weathered, hackneyed phrase has weathered the approval process and will now appear in the press release.

Bolt. It can mean to run away or to secure. Example: Bolt the door to your office or someone may bolt with your laptop.

Trim. It can mean to remove from or to add to. Example: Trim that jargon from your press release so you can trim it with action verbs and meaningful descriptors.

Resign. It can mean to give up, quit, or sign on again. Example: Use a hyphen if you want to re-sign, otherwise you might resign by mistake.

Readers, any others to add to the list?

Laura Hale Brockway writes about writing and edits about editing at Impertinent Remarks.

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