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Words that can mean two opposite things (1 Viewer)

luckyscars

WF Veterans
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?
 

Phil Istine

WF Veterans
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.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
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.
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
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
 

-xXx-

Financial Supporter
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.
best,
:)
 

Matchu

Senior Member
These words are known as

[FONT=&Verdana]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.[/FONT]
 
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TheManx

Senior Member
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...
 
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luckyscars

WF Veterans
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'.
 

Phil Istine

WF Veterans
Again, not a single word, but a phrase - when someone isn't bothered about something one way or the other.
In the UK we say, "I couldn't care less," but an American says, "I could care less."
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
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'.

There are certainly Anglo American differences in this field, you are quite right to say we wouldn't say, "We will table this for now", it would be "We will shelve this for now", and if you told us someone was 'hot' in a debate I would certainly think they were on the mark and picked things up quickly. That reminds me of the British officer who told his American superior in Korea that 'Things were a bit warm', the American went back to bed while the Gloucesters were attacked by of thousands of fresh Chinese troops who almost wiped them out.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
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?

From time to time, this is a category on Jeopardy. :)
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
Again, not a single word, but a phrase - when someone isn't bothered about something one way or the other.
In the UK we say, "I couldn't care less," but an American says, "I could care less."

In America, both phrases mean exactly the same thing (and you'll hear both interchangeably), because the speakers simply aren't paying attention to the logic of the phrasing.
 

vranger

Staff member
Supervisor
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

In good conscience, I cannot personally sanction the sanction of a sanction which sanctions an unjustifiable sanction of a sanction where the sanction sanctions sanction.

Just one man's opinion.
 
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