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Auto-Antonyms (fun-with-words.com)
300 points by rsj_hn 20 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 229 comments

There's a classic Amelia Bedelia story about how she's instructed to "dust" a room and sprinkles dust over everything.


Amelia Bedelia should be required reading at some point. She's such a special character!

Might not quite qualify as an auto-antonym, but I am entertained by the new use of "drop" which is increasingly common in ambiguous headlines, perhaps because the dual meaning enhances the clickbait level:

"Apple has dropped feature X" - they're revealed this new feature "Apple has dropped feature X" - they no longer support this feature

Headline writers using 'dated' to mean a release date (of say a film or game) has been announced, I can't help reading as judgement that the unreleased item is already passé.

Even further from being an auto-antonym, but positive and negative meanings both related to time.

Cool site / fun list. But -- and I realize this is pedantic, though if ever there were a time/place for it, it's commentary on a grammar site -- I feel "resign" doesn't quite belong on it. Resign (to sign again) is pronounced with a soft "ess", while (to quit) uses a "z" sound; they're different words w/ different pronunciations that happen to share the same spelling. Doesn't that make them homographs? Is there a special term for this case, perhaps homographic antonym, or anto-homograph?

Resign doesn’t really belong on this list. It isn’t an antonym of itself. Resign and resign are homographs with opposite(ish) meanings.

Yeah, but that's a really challenging line to draw diachronically.

For example, clip = to fasten originates from Old English `clyppan` (to embrace/clasp/surround), while clip = to cut originates somewhere Scandanavian, as in Old Norse' `klippa` (to clip/shear). Are those still homographs? I think a fair number of the list items are the result of convergent evolution.

Homographs are words that are written identically. I don't understand what you're trying to ask - the etymology of a word is not at all relevant to how it's spelled.

it's relevant to whether it's a homograph

No, it isn't. The spelling, and only the spelling, determines whether it's a homograph, because that's what "homograph" means.

Etymology is relevant to whether two words are cognates.

If the multiple meanings are merely variations on the same etymology, it’s not a homograph, it’s just a word with multiple meanings.

It's a heteronym, see[1]. And etymologically they seem to be related, the sense "quit" dating back to the 14th century while the sense "sign again" a more recent addition, 19th century [2]

[1] https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/heteronym

[2] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resign

The list is ones with the same spelling. If we went with same pronunciation we could add raise/raze.

A lot of people would spell the first one re-sign.

Indeed the function of the hyphenation is to avoid confusion with the homograph.

While we're at it, literally doesn't belong on it. Literally has exactly one meaning. Unsurprisingly, the wrong meaning is the opposite of the right one.

Still think this list would help every struggling learner of English.

You're literally wrong. :) Literally has two meanings in the dictionary, one of which is your "wrong" one:


You may be interested in linguistic descriptivism, as opposed to linguistic prescriptivism:


I believe it's an inaccurate description.

As I said elsewhere, when someone says "I've been waiting for days" and it's actually been minutes, we don't say "days sometimes means minutes". We say they were exaggerating for effect. It's a different use of the same meaning.

I think it's the same for "literally". Hyperbolic use of the original meaning. If "literally" meant "figuratively" we would expect to see sentences that would be interpreted as literal but for the inclusion of "literally", and I don't think I have ever seen one.

> You may be interested in linguistic descriptivism, as opposed to linguistic prescriptivism:

So are you prescribing to me that I must accept "figuratively" as a valid definition for "literally"?

My take is that language is a democratic activity. I never voted for the people who decided "they" must always be plural, and could never stand-in for a third-person singular of unknown gender. I think that use is simple, sensible, and solves a genuine problem in the language; every time I use "they" in the third-person-singular, I "vote" for that to be an acceptable use case.

On the other hand, the only reason to use the word "literally" is to say that this thing actually happened. That is the meaning of the word. Using it to mean "figuratively" doesn't fix a missing hole in the language; on the contrary, it opens up a hole, because low you don't know if the thing actually happened, or if the guy is just using the word "literally" to mean the opposite of "literally". If we just give up, and start saying "actually" instead of "literally", then eventually the same linguistic process will corrupt "actually", and all other variations, as well.

People who use the word "literally" as an intensifier are casting their vote for how to use the language. When I make fun of those people, I'm casting my vote, that I don't like their usage. I will continue to do so, and argue with anyone who disagrees with me, as long as it's practical to do so.

> So are you prescribing to me that I must accept "figuratively" as a valid definition for "literally"?

No, they are describing the fact that it is used that way, whether you like it or not.

That said, while I totally accept the usage, and don't have a problem with people saying "I literally died laughing" (because the phrase "I died laughing" is already on the face of it a statement of fact, and yet we have no problem understanding that it's figurative, so any modifiers -- I seriously died laughing, I totally died laughing -- are just intensifying the hyperbole), I personally don't think it should have been added to the dictionary.

People already use intensifiers when being hyperbolic (as above, "I seriously died laughing," "I totally died laughing"), we don't need to add to the definition of all of them. It's a valid part of the constellation of "intensifier + idiom," and each intensifier doesn't need to be singled out.

"Died" is already an intensifier -- and a pretty extreme one. But because of overuse, it's become meaningless; and so now people feel like they have to add more intensifiers: "seriously", "totally", "literally", etc. Eventually all those will be so overused that they become meaningless too.

I think saying "I died laughing" is a fine idiom. But the continual slipping into "cranking up the volume", and having more and more words mean nothing, is bad for the language. So, I vote to oppose this.

You have a vote too. Think about the way you want the language to be, and then vote by using it that way, and / or arguing with people who use it the way you don't like.

You can also die laughing in Chinese (我笑死了). Maybe there's something about strong laughter that is akin to dieing.

I actually have a strong memory of being about 4 or 5 (before I would have heard the phrase), and laughing at a joke my dad told so hard that I couldn't breathe for a moment, and then being genuinely furious at him, telling him "I could have died!"

I've seen the phrase "busy to death" ("忙死了"), and "missed you to death" ("念死了"), so I think Chinese are just more prone to die of extreme emotions. ;-)

It seems like a lost battle. If a person you don't know well uses literally, you already cannot know without context if they mean figuratively if the fact being qualified is remotely plausible. It's broken beyond repair. No hope for healing. Literally is no more. It's passed on. It has ceased to be. It's expired and has gone to see its maker. It's an ex-word.

Do you know Captain Literally?


However, he may not be interested in talking to (or hiring) people who misuse a word and claim that the correct use is a matter of perspective.

We can be descriptive in saying that people use "literally" when they don't mean "literally" - we can also be descriptive when we label such people as ignorant of the meaning of the words they use.

> he may not be interested in talking to (or hiring) people who misuse a word and claim that the correct use is a matter of perspective.

Because that would be the worst. No one ever says something while meaning something else.

When, while sitting at the table, people ask me if I can pass them the water, I check if I can reach the bottle, I check if I'm close enough to them, then I say "yes, I can" and keep eating.

My brother did something similar growing up. In Swedish a common way to ask the time is "Vad är klockan?", literally translating to "What is the watch?". To which I got "An invention that tells the time" or some variation thereof for years...

I wonder how many languages' time-telling questions could be susceptible of a different literal interpretation.

It seems like the Spanish and Portuguese could be literally taken as "what are hours?" ("intervals of sixty minutes!") (although I don't think it would be the most idiomatic way to ask that question in either language), while one German option is "how late is it?" ("not very!").

There's another German question which could be taken as "how much clock is it?", but since clocks are usually discrete objects, it might be quite a strain to try to take this as a question about something's clock-nature. (Maybe if you were looking at Dalí's Persistence of Memory, you could answer something like "this one is not very much clock".)

It's about 20% clock, 70% men's jewellery and 10% guilty pleasure ;)

That's not descriptive, that's presumptuous and elitist. How do you know they're ignorant? Maybe they know perfectly well what the word means and are using it for humorous effect, or as an extreme intensifier.

No, you misunderstand: ignorant has a second meaning, which is “smart”.

> we can also be descriptive when we label such people as ignorant

That position is normally termed prescriptivism, and AFAIK it's widely rejected by lexicographers and linguists and whatnot.

That kinda depends on how you define things though. literally in the sense of something that actually happened is clearly the meaning of the word. You can then debate on whether literally as in figuratively would be a separate meaning for the same word, or just hyperbole.

I'm not, but thanks.

The "figuratively" sense is just bog-standard hyperbole. Do you also object to "killed" in the sense of a stand-up comedian getting a lot of laughter during their act? Or "I just died of embarrassment!"?

It's not hyperbole. When you say something was "so funny I died", that's exactly what 'figurative' means. I don't object to the use of the facetious/sarcastic/exaggerating use of 'literally', but when used in that way, people are literally (sorry!) being figurative. I think the problem arises when something in speech starts out being sarcastic or out of proportion consciously, but gets used so much that people forget this and start changing the actual meaning of the words being used. I think it often comes about because terms and phrases get re-used by people who don't actually understand them... like a small child repeating a pun or quip they've heard an adult use, but don't really understand, and then they grow up using some part of speech incorrectly.

Unfortunately, "literally" has acquired the non-literal meaning because people use it as an intensifier:


Include me among those who find it frustrating, but the meanings of words are more or less acquired by convention, and I think my side has been outvoted on this one.

I remember trying to explain this to a friend once, but was having a 'senior moment' and couldn't remember the word 'figuratively' to explain what 'literally' should have been in the context. Now it is used as an intensifier, but it seems to be 'sarcastic' when used in that way... there's some understanding that exaggeration is being used, and that the use of the word 'literal' isn't entirely correct.

It might be more precise to call it hyperbole than sarcasm. But either is pretty reasonable. Both are rhetorical devices that hinge on creating an effect by intentionally using a word differently than its normal, plain meaning.

Incidentally, I think one reason people get irritated by this is that some people prefer communication to be direct, unambiguous, and straightforward without relying on a lot of subtlety, context, guessing, or interpretation. I'd bet that programmers and other technically-minded people lean this direction more. So when people complain that this sort of thing is a violation of the rules, I think on some level they know that's not true, so I'm inclined to interpret it more like a plea or protest to avoid this style of indirect communication.

This literally happens a lot. See "How far back in time could you go and still understand English?" [0]

[0] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fxy6ZaMOq8

Pronunciation isn't part of writing, though. As you note, oral language and written language are not isomorphic.

With all the political discussion about Britain recently, the table/table antonym described in this list has come up among my friends lately. In Britain, you "table" a motion to put it up for consideration. In the US, if a motion is "tabled" it is put off until later. Very closely related but directly opposite meanings makes for some confusing discussions, where you need to know the nationality of the writer to have any chance of understanding the statement.

A couple of others that baffle this British English speaker:

- "I could care less" meaning "I couldn't care less"

- "Entrée" meaning a main dish rather than a starter

Do many people really say "I could care less" instead of "couldn't"? I've never heard anyone say it, and the few times I've seen it used online the perpetrator has rightly been rounded upon.

If people do, what similar turns of phrase would they likewise mangle? "Well done son, I could be more proud", or "I'm completely thrilled, I could be happier", or "I'm at rock bottom, things could be worse".

Yes, I've definitely heard it many times. Unlike the other examples you suggest, I think it's become common enough to begin to be a semantic unit, whose meaning is not perceived to be a function of its parts.

-I could/couldn't care less: I feel this started out properly as "couldn't" and then people got lazy/used shortcuts in their speech. Very much like a "for all intentional purposes" type of phrase that has been incorrectly said -Entree: again just speculation... I think the US usage of this may have come from European multicourse meals... depending on the number of courses, you may start with hors d'oeuvres, soup, salad, etc... then move on to a First (Entree) and a Second as mains, before moving on to the wrap up with aperitifs, coffee, dessert, etc. As restaurants become more popular and accessible to the lower/working classes, courses were consolidated, and what was once called Entree/opener as a first main dish became the primary course of the meal.

It's a Yiddishism that spread outside of its community. For a while, already used as the Germans use schön and other similar constructions were also common. Some stuck as idioms of American English; others have faded.

I take "I could care less" to mean "I could care even less about this than I already do, that's how little it matters to me", but that could just be me trying to rationalize a mangled expression.

Well, yes, but it's always possible to care less about something, unless you are already at the state of absolute-uncaring. Therefore, "I could care less" does nothing to express the desired sentiment.

"I couldn't care less" is a much clearer reference to being at this state of absolute-uncaring.

What you said exactly makes no sense. If you said "I could NOT care less" it would mean, you care so little that it is not possible to care less than you do currently.

Regardless, I think this is just a result of people getting lazy with their language... it is not meant to be said in this say, and is properly stated, "I couldn't care less". In the US (can't speak for elsewhere) people just repeat what they think others have said, to convey what they think they understood. This is the source of a lot of language rot.

I think the intended meaning by those who say it is: I'm currently caring too much because I'm talking about it even a little bit. I could easily care even less than this.

It’s okay. The queen asked David Mitchell to have a quick word with Americans


“I could care less” is a bastardization if couldn’t care less. I have no source but I sincerely doubt “could care less” was the original usage.

Another one is the pattern “all X are not Y.” Vs “not all X are Y.”

We're getting quite off topic from antonyms, but:

> “I could care less” is a bastardization of couldn’t care less.

I've come to the conclusion that this bastardization came from the way "--dn't c--" feels in the mouth. Lots of consonant sounds in a row. Drop the "n't" and it feels much better to say, even though the phrase becomes nonsense. You even get a little bonus alliteration.

"I _could_ care less." It's meant to be a sarcastic expression. William Safire covered this (probably before you were born).


Thanks for the link. It seems to support my hypothesis about "mouthfeel" and doesn't mention sarcasm at all, so I have to admit I don't understand your comment.

fortran77 mixed up two famous linguists. He probably meant to refer to Steven Pinker. Here's a blog discussing it since I can't link to the book:


There are a few people who think there's potentially a Yiddish aspect to "could care less". I don't know if this is accepted or not.

"In Defense of I Could Care Less": https://slate.com/human-interest/2014/03/why-i-could-care-le...

> A number of language writers have suggested that “could care less” has a sarcastic reading, conveying something like “Ha! As if there were something in the world I could care less about.” There are some American Yiddish-inflected phrases that work this way, like “I should be so lucky!” (meaning “there’s no way I’m ever gonna be that lucky”) or “I should care!” (why should I care?). Even if “could care less” didn’t originate from a sarcastic intent, it matches up well enough with these other forms in the language to help give it staying power.

"Caring About Whether You Couldn’t Care Less": https://www.dictionary.com/e/could-care-less/

I particularly like this argument from this second link:

> The argument of logic falls apart when you consider the fact that both these phrases are idioms. In English, along with other languages, idioms aren’t required to follow logic, and to point out the lack of logic in one idiom and not all idioms is…illogical. Take the expression “head over heels,” which makes far less sense than “heels over head” when you think about the physics of a somersault. It turns out “heels over head” entered English around 1400, over 250 years before “head over heels,” however, the “logical” version of this idiom hasn’t been in popular usage since the late Victorian era.

“moot” is another one.

In British English it means “disputable” while in American English it means “hypothetical”.

I'm not familiar with either of those meanings. To me it means something like "irrelevant".

Then you probably are a speaker of American English. Another meaning in AE is "a fact or question that's of little practical significance".

All of these have in common that they're more less the opposite of "something controversial or worth arguing about", which is the British English.

> Another meaning in AE is "a fact or question that's of little practical significance".

That is a meaning of "moot", but "hypothetical" is not. The word "another" was probably ill-advised there.

As an American English speaker, I've only used "overlook" as a verb to mean "miss noticing entirely", but as a noun related to "examine", for instance a "forest overlook" might be a scenic turnout on the side of a road that provides a view where the forest could be "examined".

Similarly we use the word "oversee" for examining/observing... however "oversight" has taken on the role of an Auto-Antonym. We often use "oversight" and "lack of oversight" to mean the same thing, that something was missed due to carelessness... but we also use it to mean "supervision" that should prevent careless omissions from happening.

In the case of such a scenic turnout, wouldn't you then also use "overlook" as a verb, for example in 'the hills that overlook the valley'?

"Terrific" used to be a synonym for "terrible", and "awesome" for "awful". Even the word "bad" has a slang meaning of "good".

In Japanese 適当 is supposed to mean "appropriate, proper", but in practice it almost always means "unserious, sloppy, careless". Not sure how that came about.

Now I wonder if there's a general term for words that ought to be antonyms but are actually synonyms. An example would be flammable and inflammable.

I used to work on a San Francisco team with a Zurich counterpart, mostly staffed with people of Italian descent. There was a quite confusing situation once involving a misunderstanding of my use of "terrific"; they thought I was calling something horrifyingly bad. Another such situation went something like this:

Me: "I tried what you suggested and now everything's hunky-dory."

Them, 12 hours later: "Well if you're going to complain about my suggestion, I wish you'd have at least explained what was wrong with it.

A passage in the "Vogue book of manners" from the '30's insisted that one never, ever say that a woman's dress was terrific, with literally no explanation.

Terrific is my favorite autoantonym, but at this point the “terror causing” definition is little more than entomology trivia.

To quote the old joke, confusing entomology and etymology bugs me in ways I cannot put into words.

That's terrific! I LOLed.

Similar to 厉害 in Chinese - it often translates as terrible, but mostly used to mean great.

"Awesome" and "Aweful" have similar etymologoies: both mean, "Inspiring or creating awe". But one has morphed into, "really good", and the other into "really bad".

Likewise "terrible" and "terrific".

I believe "terrible" in the sense given for 厉害 is as in "I am Oz, the great and terrible", not the ordinary sense of the word.

This. It can be used more colloquially than the equivalent meaning of "terrible," where it's closer to something like "awesome." It can also generally used as a marker of intensity. In no case does it mean "bad at something."

Can you give an example where it means terrible? I can't think of any.

That's just terrorific!

"Cheap" is another one that bothered me as a kid. It means both "of low quality considering its price" and "of low price considering its quality."

And in turn its antonym "dear" is similarly conflicted.

"Premium" as an adjective means either expensive or cheap/free.

Appreciate this; thanks!

On the misuse of the word "literally", I wholeheartedly agree with the following reader comment from an excellent EconTalk podcast, "John McWhorter on the Evolution of Language and Words on the Move"[1]:

This whole “literally” issue seems to have been mis-framed. The reason many of us object to the use of the word “literally” to mean “figuratively” isn’t that we can’t stand the thought of language evolving; it’s because there’s no replacement for it! I once had a friend say to me, “X is literally Y, and I mean ‘literally’ literally (not figuratively).”

           - - -
From the same[1] podcast, I also learnt about this fun concept called "backshift": when two words join to become a single word (e.g. "breakfast", "blackboard", etc), the accent often shifts to the first word. In McWhorter's words: When something becomes an established concept and it's made up of two or more words, then you, very often have that shift to the back of the word [i.e. the first word].

I'm not all doing justice to the topic. But go check the transcript[1] for "backshift", Mcwhorter gives more context. I'd strongly suggest to listen to it; it clicks much better, as we're talking about word accents.

[1] https://www.econtalk.org/john-mcwhorter-on-the-evolution-of-...

My favourites are words that mean the opposite in different Englishes. For example

* to table: postpone (US English) vs put forward for consideration (British English)

* to (take a) punt: give up (US) vs go ahead (British)

What could we call these... Alter-Anglo-Auto-Antonyms?

Also, this used to cause trouble with phone operators connecting phone calls between USA and England: "are you through?" could mean either "are you connected?" or "are you done with the conversation?"

Punt is an interesting one. I think the original meaning was "offer". I've seen it used this way in the British press: The company is punting a new product. This could have been the original meaning in American football: to punt the ball is to offer it to the opponents. But since a team punts when they have given up on making a first down, the meaning of punt shifted to "give up".

Not exactly an auto-antonym, but similar: in Spanish we have a verb, "alquilar", which means simultaneously "to rent" and "to rent out", and it drives me crazy that it's often unclear from which end of the relation one is speaking:

"Man, the law is so unfair to people who rent!"

"Do you mean unfair to the owner of the property or to the tenant who pays the rent?"

(It doesn't translate perfectly to English, but works in Spanish)

edit: wait, I see "lease" is in the list and it has exactly the same problem! Take that, English language! :D

I'm not sure if it's officially correct, but I've heard both "rent to" and "rent from" used colloquially in (American) English.

I'm sure you're also able to indicate the roles of tenant and landlord in Spanish. But just like in English, you're not required to.

Right! You have "propietario" (the person who owns the property) and "inquilino" (the person paying the rent). But confusingly enough the verb is still "alquilar" ("to rent") for both :)

So if you say "voy a alquilar esta casa" ("I'm going to rent this house") it's not clear whether you're the landlord or the tenant.

"Renter" would also be ambiguous, although "lessor" and "lessee" do have specific meanings.

In Swedish, it's also the same word ("hyra") but the meaning is conveyed by adding "ut" ("out"). So the tenant hyr what the landlord hyr ut.

Collections of words like this really amuse me for some reason. I have my own collection of animal names which are also verbs:


I'm surprised "original" didn't make the list.

For example, consider "An original telling of the story" vs "The original telling of the story".

I'm not sure that qualifies as auto antonyms.

Original means the origin/birth in both examples, the difference lies not in the meaning of original but in the word it affects (The telling, or the story itself)

I wish it was socially acceptable to reply with a compiler error when people use these words. Like "Ambiguous token in the current namespace." Maybe that makes me a nerd, on the spectrum, or just pedantic. Or a pedantic nerd on the spectrum.

Somewhat related: I wish human languages would have the concept of a parse error. Often enough someone says something to me that I'll hear with 100% clarity, but still have no clue what they are trying to say, after which it's often time to play the "what" game until they rephrase.

"Sorry, I'm not quite sure what you're saying, would you mind elaborating?"

Very interesting. The article's "see also" references branch prediction. Given all the nascent security findings around cache security, it makes me wonder whether disfluency could be used to attack cognition, in interrogative techniques or subversive advertising, for instance.

"Sorry, I understood the words but not the sentence"

"Can you rephrase that?"

"Doesn't sound like anything to me."

Ah but that's not strictly true, since it usually involves perfectly grammatically correct sentences that still just don't make sense.

While on the topic of insufferable linguistic pedantry: I always cringe when people use that to introduce subordinate clauses instead of who when the subject refers to humans, but don’t say anything because the majority does not seem to be bothered by this. Example: “The coders that use sublime are great.”

P.S. I also like to use the word insufferable, picked it up from Pride and Prejudice, unfortunately doesn’t get the usage it deserves nowadays.

P.P.S Not many people use P.S. in their emails/posts either, would be a good habit to bring back.

From Oxford Dictionaries Online: "It is sometimes argued that, in relative clauses, that should be used for non-human references, while who should be used for human references: a house that overlooks the park but the woman who lives next door. In practice, while it is true to say that who is restricted to human references, the function of that is flexible. It has been used for human and non-human references since at least the 11th century, and is invaluable where both a person and a thing is being referred to, as in a person or thing that is believed to bring bad luck."

(Sorry if I'm being insufferable :-)

Good information, thanks.

Some years ago, while skimming The DFW Reader (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21423291-the-david-foste...), I saw the fact he included the exclusivity of who to humans on his list of good practices for students in the class he taught.

There's nothing more socially damning than expecting actual communication when conversing with people.

Reminds me of the old quote, "The great enemy of communication is the illusion of it."


There's another type of language ambiguity in some languages, where the way a word is used makes it unclear what is the object and what is the subject in that sentence. It happens e.g. in Polish sometimes. Can't think of a good example now, but I recall that in my more pedantic days, I used to write stuff like: "subject --verb--> object" or "object <--verb subject" to distinguish between the cases. Unfortunately, it didn't catch on.

"Dzieci lubią psy" could in principle mean either "Kids like dogs" or "Dogs like kids". In practice there's no ambiguity (at least in this example), because SVO is a much more natural order.

It would be more socially acceptable if you were specific, like asking the person directly about which word was ambiguous.

I think the takeaway here is that compiler errors could use more specificity and grammar checks too...

"Ambiguous token `literally` in the `English` namespace."

Now I'm cool!

"I'm not sure what you mean by X; did you mean X1 or X2?" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say during a conversion (modulo formality)

I replied "context error" in a chat with a friend once. It didn't go well.

You should learn Chinese.

Difficult to be a nerd without a sinew of pedantry.


    leave (verb)
    1. To go away
    2. To keep in place

covered already by "left", its past-tense form

Not really an autoantonym, as the syntax of the sentence will only ever permit one or the other. ("Left" [remaining] is passive, while "left" [went away] is intransitive and therefore cannot be passive.)

That was an oversight from my side ;)

There are some religious concepts that could be seen as auto-antonyms. The Polynesian words from which we get "taboo" refer to something sacred to the gods, which therefore ordinary people are forbidden to use or interfere with.

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/tapu https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/kapu#Hawaiian

The taboo thing could therefore be seen as very good and important (for gods) or as very bad, improper, or dangerous (for people, outside of the appropriate religious context). I think that many cultures have had a similar dual connotation in words related to sacred things, even if they don't have exactly the same cultural rules.

It's interesting to look at the meanings of Latin "sacer" (the origin of our word "sacred") as an analogy:


"quite" can be used to mean "entirely". "He was quite dead", "It was quite the worst thing I ever saw".

It also means "partially". "It was quite nice", etc.

I think this comes from people using the phrase "It was quite good" in cases when they weren't hugely impressed.

I read somewhere that American and British usage of “quite” is different — Americans use it to mean “entirely”, while British use it to mean “fairly”.

English English speaker here: quite is often used both ways. While it is defined as meaning "fairly" it is usually used to mean a little more than that ("the weather is quite nice" means somewhere between "the weather is fair" and "the weather is nice"), it is also used to mean entirely but usually in a sarcastic manner where the juxtaposition of the entirelyness of your intent and the fairlyness of the actually meaning of the word stands out ("oh, you are quite wrong there"). Also, in combination with a negative it usually means entirely (as in "the job isn't quite done yet").

These are far from hard & fast rules though. In spoken situations the intended meaning is generally obvious from tone, in written text it can be quite ambiguous.

There is at least one use where the word means both at once: when it is used on its own: Person one: "The man is an utter 'king imbecile", Person two: "Quite" or P1: "WOOOOOOHOOOOOOO!!!!!!", P2: "Quite". Here it means "I agree (on a binary yes/no level) but I wouldn't put it that strongly". Similar to how "indeed" is often used.

That’s interesting. I’m an American who frequently talks to brits, and I’ve never picked up on the different meaning of quite. I’ll make a point to listen for that in the future.

I'm British; are you quite sure about that?

:trollface: it's definitely used both ways, but always clear from context I would say.

I don't get the inclusion of "comprise". How are "to contain; include" and "to be composed of; consist of" opposites of one another? Consisting of or being composed of something definitionally means containing or including it, no?

Yes, these two definitions are very close to each other. "Comprise" does not belong here.

Others I would remove:

"quantum": It really means something more like "discrete", and discrete values might be small or large depending on one's perspective.

"splice": I find no support for the second definition.

Still, many of these are very nice.

my favourite type of word. although i refuse to accept the new definition of literally to mean figuratively. i want it taken back.

The word “literally” is an intensifier; do you have the same objection to the use of ‘really’, or ‘actually’? ‘Literally’ was first used to mean “from the text” in the late 17th c. By the early 19th c. it was already fully co-opted as an intensifier.

It still doesn't feel like "literally" has been fully co-opted to me, at least not for anyone who isn't a teenager. I'd same the same about "actually", but I don't think I've even heard teenagers use it as a mere intensifier.

It's been fully co-opted everywhere except in the headspace of internet prescriptivists.

My theory of literally is that it's being used to indicate a literal rendition of the speaker's mental state. So it doesn't mean figuratively, it means "this exclamation is the most direct rendering of how I feel about this. " That is, it's literal because nothing was changed from the verbal impulse that immediately sprang to mind.

Slightly related: Homographic homophonic autantoyms http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1104

Very cool list. I little sad the word "peruse" mean to read over in an attentive or leisurely manner is not on the list it's one of my favorite autoantonyms.

> temper (1) to soften; mollify (2) to strengthen (e.g. a metal)

Not contradictory because hardness and toughness are 2 distinct (though correlated) properties. Tempering [1] is basically a process that trades some hardness (i.e. soften) for a lot of toughness (i.e. strengthen).

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tempering_(metallurgy)


•very good, excellent; "cool".

•of poor quality; "bad".


Edit: Credit?

Theres credit in the sense of receiving money, and money in the sense of money going out.

This probably makes more sense to people who have learnt double entry book keeping where credit and debits are reversed compared to popular usage.

"Shit" is an interesting case and not a straightforward auto-antonym. The meaning of shit hinges entirely on whether it is preceded by "the."

Aladeen submission.

I think list is missing a most interesting word of this type, 'nonplussed', which can mean either perturbed or not perturbed.

Never heard it used to mean "not perturbed"; I think it's just a misconstrual. The origin of the word is the French "non plus" meaning "no more": one can't think of anything else to say; one is speechless.

Now in common usage among Americans it seems to mean "not perturbed".


Were auto-antonyms meant to have opposing meanings based on the context? Or do they become that way when people assume the meaning incorrectly?

For example, nonplussed originally means to be surprised. But a layman would think that to be 'plussed' must be to be surprised and nonplussed must be the opposite of that. Is this how auto-antonyms come to be?

It explains it a bit at the bottom of the article with dust (to dust furniture is to clean them, but to dust crops is to put dust on them); but it does seem to be around noun/verb context/usage.

They should add the very similar "cite" and "citation". You can be cited for bravery, or for speeding.

Maybe an encompassing description of "cite" is "to publicly recognize"

A lot of these are just words describing two-subject events. When there is a lease, someone is lending and someone is borrowing. Same for rent, bill, left, etc.

A lot of the others are present vs. past tense. After you put something where you want it, you want it to stay put.

I like the 3rd definition of this word: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trump

It also means fart in British English. It was quite funny that the US had a President Fart for about 3 minutes until the reality set in.

Similarly inverted: Johnson

A recent headline: "Floppy Johnson Can't Get an Election"

I like homeophone-antonyms -- words with antonyms that sound similar enough that if you slur a little bit, people won't be sure which you said.

Eg: I find your suggestion risible/reasonable.

Artifact: Intentional object created by humans Artifact: Unintentional/erroneous feature expressed in the creation of an object

Wonder if NLP and machine learning algos are equipped to disambiguate the intended meaning of an autoantonym, with respect to its context.

Fairly sure a simple word2vec would cover the majority of cases.

Biweekly? One every two weeks or twice a week.

Biweekly means every two weeks. Twice a week is "semiweekly" although people often get this wrong. There's also "semimonthly" for twice a month.

No, those two aren't antonyms.

One I noticed at the grocery is pre-cooked. It means cooked for Turkeys and uncooked for Tortillas.

Hysterical: extremely funny or horrified.

This happened to me just now: In a two story building, "First Floor" can mean either one.

In the US, first floor is what Europeans call the ground floor. So I think it depends on where you are.

How about nonplussed? It means to be surprised and confused, and also unperturbed.

I had not heard of this term before!

And the inclusion of literally made me smile

The inclusion of what literally made you smile?

Did it literally make you smile? :-)

Academic can mean

- important enough to merit study

- trivial enough to be dismissed

I expected to find the word blues in it.

literally is literally my favorite

set = to put in place, to replace

Great list! My favorite is on it. The verb "sanction" is my "favorite" since the two meanings are both political and totally opposite. If you just read "the United States sanctioned the action" you have literally no idea if it means they expressly allowed it, no problem go right ahead, or if it means they were so mad they did something negative in response, oh, we're punishing you for that. I would say you can't even use the word for that reason.

Because of oversight, the activity was sanctioned.

I love how that sentence yields 4 possible meanings.

I think the two meanings of "oversight" are not quite interchangeable. One is a mass noun (used without an article): "better oversight is needed"; while the other is a count noun (used with an article): "it was an oversight". So "because of oversight" sounds odd to me; I think it would be "because of an oversight", which would unambiguously indicate the "error" sense.

"The activity was sanctioned because of the oversight" seems to work for me with both meanings of 'oversight'

Ah, very good.

The contradictory meaning of "sanction" is very recent and dates to the 90s (referring to trade restrictions on Iraq). Because it's so new it really annoys me (as opposed to, say, cleave).

When I hear it I still hear as it was used: we (was it the UN? US? I can no longer remember) sanction your restricting trade with this other country. Which on TV was abbreviated/blurred and thus within only a couple of years the standalone term had acquired the new meaning!

So at least to me your sentence seems clear: I don't feel like the meaning has changed quite as much as you do. But since you interpret it that way: perhaps I am wrong!

It's a shame the google ngram tool only consults text. TV is a rich source of neologisms.

Merriam Webster says you are off by a few hundred years: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sanction

I was excited to look up and see what I had gotten wrong but I don't see it in that entry. It lists the "first uses" as being definition 1 of noun and verb, i.e. precisely my example (UN sanction on restriction of trade).

They do quote (the wonderful) Molly Ivins, who passed away in 2007.

Older then that. I remember discussing the word and its opposed interpretations in my student days back in the seventies. This was in Danish, but same word ('sanktion'), same meanings.

I guess the history of this auto-antonym is that in Latin, it refers to a decree or rule—which could potentially be a decree allowing something, or a decree forbidding something.

Honestly, usage of the word "sanction" should just be sanctioned.

So you sanction that 'sanction' be sanctioned?

It is.

Do you mean literally as in • actually; really or • figuratively; virtually ?

We detached this subthread from https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=21146964.

That one really needs to go away from the list; I refuse to accept "figuratively" as a valid definition for "literally", and will contradict / argue with / make fun of anyone who does so.

I sympathise, but for better or worse the OED reports that people have been using "literally" to mean "figuratively"* since at least 1769:

  > 1769   F. Brooke *Hist. Emily Montague* IV. ccxvii. 83 "He is a fortunate man to be introduced to such a party of fine women at his arrival; it is literally to feed among the lilies."
  > 1801   *Spirit of Farmers' Museum* 262   "He is, literally, made up of marechal powder, cravat, and bootees."
  > 1825   J. Denniston *Legends Galloway* 99   "Lady Kirkclaugh, who, literally worn to a shadow, died of a broken heart."
  > 1863   F. A. Kemble *Jrnl. Resid. Georgian Plantation* 105   "For the last four years..I literally coined money."
  > 1876   ‘M. Twain’ *Adventures Tom Sawyer* ii. 20   "And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling in wealth."
[*] Or as they, put it, "Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense"

Those examples don't use literally to mean "literally" (or "figuratively").

Its meaning in those is closer to "pretty much", "as good as", or "almost like". It's more of a metaphorical intensifier, but there's clearly a metaphor being implied.

"Tom was literally rolling in wealth" vs. "I'm literally going to kill him!"

They look the same to me.

If you took away "literally" in both cases, it would still be understood to be figurative. "Literally" isn't doing its job of meaning literally, but it isn't meaning figuratively.

I think the correct understanding is as hyperbolic use of the regular sense of literally.

If I say, "I walked miles around the store looking for you" or "I waited for you for days", we don't say "sometimes miles means hundreds of feet and sometimes days means a few minutes". We say people sometimes exaggerate.

In the same way, "Tom was rolling in wealth [so much so that it's almost as if he were literally rolling in wealth, but of course that interpretation is silly and I'm using hyperbole to exaggerate how rolling-in-wealth Tom was]".

I don't understand the distinction you're trying to draw here. Literally 100% of the time modern people use the word "literally" in a way that means "figuratively" it's to engage in hyperbole but it's also to explicitly mark that what follows is not to be taken literally.

As you say, you can engage in hyperbole without marking it.

The distinction is that you cannot substitute the word "figuratively" in these examples, because it does not mean "figuratively".

If I say "I figuratively am going to kill him", you're highlighting the figurativeness of the act. You're stressing that you're not actually going to kill him. The meaning of the sentence is "I'm going to kill him... but not really".

If I say "I'm going to kill him" or "I'm literally going to kill him", which mean basically the same thing, it's still implied to be metaphor. But what's being stressed here is the closeness to the metaphor becoming actually literal. The meaning of the sentence is "I'm SO angry with him that I'm ALMOST at the point of killing him".

It's subtle, but there's definitely a distinction. "Figuratively" is a dehyperbolization (it's not really gonna happen), "literally" is a hyperbolization (it is hyperbolically really close to happening).

I don't think it's marking hyperbole, but being itself used hyperbolically.

I find this convincing.

The same as what?

"Literally" is being used for hyperbole. It makes the sentence more intense.

The word "figuratively" is not used for hyperbole. It's not a synonym. The sentence being figurative does not matter.

That is true.

> Used to indicate that some (frequently conventional) metaphorical or hyperbolical expression is to be taken in the strongest admissible sense

That's not a definition of "figuratively".

This style of argument is not persuasive. It can only tell us that people have been making an error since 1769 or something. It can't tell us that we should tolerate this error in well constructed writing. You're demonstrated nothing.

Language "rules" are errors given time. There isn't a static arbiter of what is correct and what is not, otherwise new words wouldn't be added to dictionaries.

This doesn’t contradict mindful amending of language, not only new words are allowed but modifying the old ones too.

I agree, but I will say language seemingly mutates from random chance much more often than with human intervention.

One may or may not like it, but that is literally how language works.

Language is a democracy. When people say thing like "My head literally exploded", they are voting for "literally" to be a meaningless intensifier. When I make fun of them, I'm voting for it to have the meaning, "This actually happened".

Think about which way you want the language to be, and then use your vote.

Democracy implies you both have equal votes and there is an outcome that can become the norm. They are using the word 'literally' in a way that imbues additional meaning (or arguably makes a new word) without seeking permission from society or community. You are using (mild, well-meant) social coercion to try to suppress that usage. I'd say it's more anarchy than democracy.

I don't think the intensifier is meaningless. It is meaningful because otherwise people wouldn't use it. It might be jarring to you, or the meaning not obvious, but an intensifier is by definition meaningful: it intensifies, after all :)

Exactly. The post I argued against didn't provide any information about base rates, so it was not the kind of argument from popularity that you're describing. A lot of people write English. You can always find someone who screws it up in some way or another. Pointing out these screwups is not an argument that the screwup consists of a consensus language change.

One may or may not like it, but that is language how literally works.

You may not like my swapping the definitions of those words, but that is language how literally works. Therefore, according to your logic, it is valid.

"It can't tell us that we should tolerate this error in well constructed writing."

The 'well constructed writing' portion was not specified. What was specified is that someone will make fun of anyone for the colloquial use case.

It isn't really used to mean 'figuratively' though is it?

When someone says "I was so cross I literally exploded!" they are not explicitly pointing out that they didn't really explode, they're just using the word for some kind of emphasis.

Sorta... "literally" may add emphasis to the figure of speech, a hyperbole, to make it even more hyperbolic. But in your example, "to explode" (according to Webster's) also means "to burst out in anger", so "literally" in this case would just serve to attest that the explosion of anger is accurate, which is the most essential definition of "literally" anyway.

A better, similar example could be "I was so ashamed I literally imploded". In this case "literally" is just emphasizing a figurative implosion.

> "literally" may add emphasis to the figure of speech

I think "emphasis" is really what this alternate usage is.

I had a weird experience when I rented the tux for my wedding. The tux came with a colored handkerchief that was meant to be tucked into the pocket of the coat in a decorative way; and the guy showing me how to do it kept using "literally": "Literally take the handercheif, and literally fold it over so, and literally put it in the pocket so."

I was a bit bemused, but I didn't say anything, because he was literally taking the handkerchief, folding it over, and so on. But it seemed a bit strange to use it that way; I would certainly never have interpreted him as saying to metaphorically fold the handkerchief, so why emphasize "literally"?

I posted the experience to FB, and someone pointed out that he was simply using the word "literally" for emphasis: in this case, emphasizing how simple the steps were.

When people say things like "My head literally exploded", they're doing the same thing: simply using it as an intensifier.

But words have meaning, er, at least they used to. "I literally exploded" is not accurate, as they didn't actually explode. Maybe "I laterally exploded"? That word would work equally as well as it still makes no sense.

Words have meanings, and the meaning of literally is also emphasis. Bad prescriptivism.

> Words have meanings, and the meaning of literally is also emphasis. Bad prescriptivism.

The insistence that simple emphasis is a valid use for "literally" -- and quoting M-W or the OED to support your case -- is just as prescriptive the insistence that it doesn't.

Language is socially constructed by the people using it; we all "vote" by using it, and by policing its use.

So let me ask you this: Do you want "literally" to be a meaningless emphasis word (and thus lose its ability to specify "this actually happened")? Or do you want "literally" to mean "I am not speaking figuratively, this thing actually happened"?

If you want the former, then I disagree with you, but sure, go ahead and use your "vote" to police people objecting to "literally" meaning "figuratively". But if you want the latter, then join me in insisting that it means "this actually happened".

I like how Ambrose Bierce put it: It is bad enough to exaggerate, but to affirm the truth of the exaggeration is intolerable.

Unfortunately, it's literally come to mean of opposite of what it actually means.

Obligatory xkcd: https://xkcd.com/725/.

And another one, for 'gwd downthread: https://xkcd.com/1108/.

biweekly et al - every other week - twice a week

Bi- means two, so biweekly is every two weeks. Twice a week would be semiweekly (every half week), right?

Semiweekly is explicit. Biweekly is ambiguous.


Biweekly and bimonthly can mean the same thing because of the prefix bi-, which here can mean “occurring every two” or “occurring twice in.”

The idiom is damaged by careless use. It reminds me of some friends who insist that "penultimate" means "ultimate"...

I don't think it is carelessness in this case. The prefix bi can have both meanings and ultimately it comes down to indeterminate parsing: (biweek)ly or bi(weekly), and thus can only be resolved by convention. But both usages have been long established (at least in the US) so we're stuck. This seems far different from the penultimate or literally or hysterical misuses that became a careless norm.

Semiweekly suffers from the same logical discrepancy, but unlike biweekly the convention is well established (though you hardly ever hear the term in the US. In fact before this thread I wouldn't have known which it meant. (other than definitely being the opposite of biweekly... so...))

Semiweekly is twice a week

So is biweekly.

I've heard Americans use biweekly to mean every two weeks. I've also seen them use it to mean twice a week, but more rarely than the other meaning.

In the UK and other English speaking areas (Australia and New Zealand to name two) bi-weekely always means twice a week, following the same pattern as biannually and other examples. We use fortnightly to mean every two weeks, but the word fortnight is not commonly used in the US.

Bimonthly is also ambiguous unfortunately. Again in the UK it would be taken as meaning twice per month (almost, but not quite, the same as fortnightly) but some others use it to mean every two months.

Biannually seems to be consistently used and understood to mean twice per year, with biennial meaning every two years though that isn't a commonly used word in my experience (people tend to just say "every two years").

One (relatively) common usage of biennial (or its Italian spelling biennale) is in the art and cinema community as competitions tend to happen every other year and are called a biennale even in English


You mean to say "semiannually", of course. As I've been told by many people for whom English is a second language, no one speaks English worse than the English. b^)

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