Words that can mean two opposite things


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  1. #1

    Words that can mean two opposite things

    Not exactly a 'spag' question, but it could be...

    I was thinking about this with regard to the word 'sanction'....


    • a threatened penalty for disobeying a law or rule.
    • official permission or approval for an action.


    It seems strange to have a word that can mean essentially two things that both almost perfectly contradict each other. If something is 'sanctioned', an action is being taken to either stop it or allow it depending entirely, it seems, on the vagaries of context. If a demonstration is 'sanctioned' it usually means it's allowed to do what it is desired. If a country is 'sanctioned' it means it isn't.

    Was wondering if there are any other words like that and how they come to exist/how to use them unambiguously?

  2. #2
    One of my favourites is cleave.
    It can mean to force apart or to stick together.

    Another that got me thinking, though not a single word, is the phrase charm offensive. It seems to join up two words that have opposing indicators and spews them out to enhance each other - perhaps a bit like love bomb.


  3. #3
    I think "sanction" refers to putting down a official wall. Whether you "are supposed to" or "not supposed to" depends on where you are relative to that wall. So there's no contradiction.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by EternalGreen View Post
    I think "sanction" refers to putting down a official wall. Whether you "are supposed to" or "not supposed to" depends on where you are relative to that wall. So there's no contradiction.
    You would seem to imply that sanctions only apply if they are officially sanctioned sanctions; but I think most people would accept the concept of unofficial sanctions, they might even sanction such sanctions. I hope you see what I am getting at and do not sanction it; I can not sanction the idea that a sanction depends on official involvement
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  5. #5
    janus words
    per etymology online:
    "The Germans call them "Janus-words," after the ancient Roman god who guarded portals, doors, and gates; patron of beginnings and endings. He had two faces, facing opposite ways.*"

    context clarifies.
    well, it can clarify.
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  6. #6
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    These words are known as

    contranyms/contronym

    There are hundreds of examples. Google abouts and you will find an archive. It is a wormhole, and I guarantee pillow-talk on the issue.

    contranyms are wonderful.
    Last edited by Matchu; October 13th, 2020 at 11:57 AM.

  7. #7
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    There’s bad, like actually bad — and then there’s bad, like Micheal Jackson bad, which means good. It can be confusing, but one must consider context.

    P.S. -- Let me provide examples:

    Example 1:

    Waiter, please take these eggs away. They're bad.

    Example 2:

    Because I'm bad, I'm bad, shamone
    (Bad, bad, really, really bad)
    You know I'm bad, I'm bad, you know it
    (Bad, bad, really, really bad)
    You know I'm bad, I'm bad, shamone, you know
    (Bad, bad, really, really bad)
    And the whole world has to answer right now
    Just to tell you once again who's bad...
    Last edited by TheManx; October 13th, 2020 at 12:53 PM.

  8. #8
    There is me of course

    Buckle down to it or buckle under the stress.
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  9. #9
    A good one is 'table'. Can mean to either put something forward to be proposed "It's all on the table" or withdrawn from consideration "let's table this for now". I think in British English "let's table this for now" would be to put it forward for consideration, which is the exact opposite of US English.

    Slang is definitely rife with this stuff. To say you maintain a "cool relationship with someone" can mean either you are 'cool with them', a positive, or that you feel cool toward them, which is negative. Likewise, the word 'hot' is very ambiguous. Donald Trump was 'hot' at the debate according to pundits, meaning he was out of line and the performance was poor, but saying something is 'hot' is often a positive - 'hot shot'.

  10. #10
    "off" as in: "my alarm went off, so I switched it, erm ... well ... you know."


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