A contranym is a word that has seemingly contradictory meanings. Because of their two-faced nature, they are also sometimes referred to as “Janus words” after the two-faced Roman god. In a nutshell1, we’re talking about a word that is its own antonym. Contranyms do not necessarily need to be spelled the same way; those that sound alike, but are spelled differently, are called homophonic contranyms.
Some examples in English are:
- 1shell (hard outer covering/remove hard outer covering)
- Peanuts come in shells.
- These peanuts have been shelled (i.e., the shells have been removed).
- oral/aural2 (speech/hearing)
- I have an oral (speaking) exam today.
- I have an aural (hearing) exam today.
- fast (speedy/not moving)
- This car is fast.
- Stand fast!
- oversight (to miss/scrutiny)
- That was an oversight on my part.
- This program is under strict Congressional oversight.
- strike (to hit/to miss)
- Strike one!
- He strikes the ball with the bat.
Another word that, through misuse, has become somewhat of a contranym is literal. Some have (confusingly) come use the word to mean “figuratively” (e.g. “I literally died laughing”). However, the original meaning also remains (e.g. “I am literally typing this on a MacBook Pro”). Confusion ensues. To mitigate this, I’ll sometimes write “literal-literal” and “figurative-literal” in blog posts.
While working on a translation today, I happened upon a contranym that appears to cross over linguistic lines: yama.
Яма (yama): pit (Russian)
山 (yama): mountain (Japanese)
(Of course, because they are spelled differently, they are technically homophonic contranyms, but you already knew that.)
Do you know of any bilingual contranyms? Please share them in the comments section and I’ll post them in a future article!
2Depending upon your regional dialect, you may pronounce these words differently.