The English language is riddled with complexities and inconsistencies. How does colonel sound like kernel? Why are we unfazed by something — not unphased? As a grammar fanatic with a professionally trained linguist mother, I love learning new elements of language. Sometimes, I am exposed to a new grammar phenomenon I have never encountered. This one came from a friend and elicited a high dive down a rabbit hole.

I will call these contronyms, but the concept has many monikers, including auto-antonym, antagonym, and Janus word. “A contronym is a word with a homonym (another word with the same spelling but different meaning) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning),” says Grammarly.

A contradictory meaning emerges depending on the context. While there are hundreds of examples of contronyms, here are 10 cleverly related examples to show the differences.

1. Dust: to add fine particles | to remove fine particles

The chef dusts his famous chocolate lava cake with powdered sugar.
The host dusts every table before the first guests arrive.

2. Fix: to repair | to castrate

Let’s fix the fence this weekend so Rosie can run around in the yard.
We have to take her to the vet to get fixed next week.

3. Variety: a particular type | many types

No one knows why this one rare mushroom variety grows here.
But a variety of insects are eager to eat it.

4. Weather: to withstand | to wear away

We won’t be able to weather the storm in this boat.
Salt, sun, and wind have weathered its wood.

5. Model: a copy | an exemplar

The campers assembled model rockets at science camp.
Max was a model camper and every counselor’s favorite.

6. Fine: excellent | acceptable, good enough

The gallery curator only shows fine art.
My art teacher told me I did fine, but I need to practice my drawing skills.

7. Buckle: a common practice | special treatment

I buckled the Christmas tree securely to the top of the car.
Our decades-old Christmas tree stand buckled and shattered under the weight of the tree.

8. Overlook: to monitor | to miss

My boss still overlooks my work after six months.
She must have overlooked the Ph.D. on my résumé!

9. Peruse: to skim | to scrutinize

The syllabus was long, but I perused it for test and assignment due dates.
I’ve got to thoroughly peruse the textbook if I want to make an A.

10. Mean: rude or stingy | excellent

He makes a mean chocolate lava cake dusted with powdered sugar.
One guest wrote a mean review accusing us of not dusting off the tables.

How’s that for a full-circle grammar moment!? Now that you know about contronyms, you will notice them all the time! And that’s SICK, dude! (Did you catch that one?!) Do you have a topic you’d like me to discuss? Email [email protected]. See you next month!


For more grammar, spelling, and word usage tips, explore our Grammar Guru archives HERE!

Zoe Yarborough
About the Author
Zoe Yarborough

Zoe is a StyleBlueprint staff writer, Charlotte native, Washington & Lee graduate, and Nashville transplant of eleven years. She teaches Pilates, helps manage recording artists, and likes to "research" Germantown's food scene.