English Contronyms

This week we’re going to examine ten commonly-used English contronyms. A contronym, sometimes called an auto-antonym or “Janus word” (after the two-faced Greek god), is a word with two opposite meanings. Which meaning a contronym is intended to convey is entirely context-dependent. Because of this, we’re providing both brief definitions and sample sentences for the pairs of meanings for each contronym listed below.


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Bolt can mean either “to secure” or “to escape or flee”:


Remember to bolt the door before you leave the shop.


The student bolted for the classroom door as soon as the bell rang.




Cleave can mean either “to join” or “to separate”:


The frightened infant cleaved to her mother’s body.


With a mighty swing of his axe, the woodsman cleaved the block of wood in two.




Dust can mean either to sprinkle with or remove fine particles:


The blueberry waffles here are delicious! They are filled with fresh blueberries, topped with warm blueberry compote, and dusted with powdered sugar.


Don’t forget to dust nightstand when you clean the guest bedroom.




Similar to dust, garnish can mean to add or take away.


The “add to” meaning is usually used in the context of finishing a dish of food:


Garnish the casserole with freshly-chopped cilantro just before serving.


The “take away from” meaning usually refers to a person’s earnings:


The IRS is garnishing his wages because he has refused to pay taxes for the past three years.




Left can be either the past tense of “to leave” or an indicator of what remains:


You just missed June! She left a few minutes before you arrived.


We need to order more SAT books. We have only one copy left in stock.




Model can mean either the very best example of someone or something or a copy or replica:


Melody is a model student who always goes above and beyond what an assignment requires.


The college has an impressively-detailed scale model of the campus in the lobby of its admissions office.




Oversight can convey both the idea of monitoring or watching someone or something and inadvertently failing to “catch” something whole monitoring:


As part of the settlement, the company agreed to hire an outside agency to provide additional oversight of worker safety and training.


Due to an oversight during the testing phase, the program crashes if you try to import files over a certain size.



Rent can mean to buy or to sell the use of something:


 We really should rent a Rug Doctor. The “tan” carpet in the living room is supposed to be white.


My aunt rents the spare bedroom in her house to college students during the summer.




Screen can mean either to present or to conceal:


Movies are usually screened for critics before they are released to the general public.


I forgot my sunglasses, so I have nothing to screen my eyes from the sun.



Transparent can mean that something is invisible or that something is incredibly obvious:


The windows of starships in the television show Star Trek are made of transparent aluminum.


The student’s real motive for going on the school trip to England was embarrassingly transparent. He cared nothing for Shakespeare and only wanted to party.