More English Contronyms

This week we’re going to examine another ten commonly-used English contronyms: words with two contradictory meanings. A contronym, sometimes called an auto-antonym or “Janus word” (after the two-faced Greek god), is essentially its own opposite. Accordingly, the meaning that a contronym conveys is entirely context-dependent.


If you need more help with contronyms or any other aspect of the English language, contact the English Island in Atlanta. Our passionate, dedicated ESL teachers can craft a course that is tailored to your individual needs.




An apology can be admission of fault and request for forgiveness for an action or a defense of an action or idea:


The politician issued a written apology for his insensitive comments about minorities.


The “defense of” meaning of apology—and its derivatives—is usually used to refer to a formal defense of a religion:


Although the author has written several novels, he is known primarily for his works of religious apologia.




Bound can mean both heading towards a destination and being prevented from moving (the past tense of bind):


The movie Homeward Bound is about pets trying to reunite with their owners.


She bound the packages together with a length of cord to make them easier to carry.




Clip can mean either to fasten or to detach:


George clips his keys to his belt with a spring-loaded faster.


Mary clipped out the article about her daughter winning the marathon and pinned it to the refrigerator.




Off usually means “to deactivate” (i.e. turn off the lights). However, off can also mean “to activate” when referring to an alarm. Here is an example of both:


While attempting to turn off the security cameras, the thief accidentally set off the silent alarm.



Put out

Put out can mean both to extinguish and to generate:


Thinking quickly, he grabbed the extinguisher from under the sink and put out fire on the stove.


I had no idea that band put out a fourth album. I thought they broke up after the third one.



Refrain can mean to stop oneself from doing something or the repeated lines in a poem or song:


Try to refrain from being overly critical of the new employee. He’s only been working here for a week.


Everyone seems to remember the refrain from that song, but I’ve never met anyone who knows the rest of the lyrics.




Sanction can mean either to give formal approval or permission for or to impose a penalty on:


Only one drug has been sanctioned for the treatment of that disease.


The United Nations imposed economic sanctions on the country because of its horrible human rights record.




Strike means “to hit.” In sports, however, strike can also mean an attempted hit that misses:


Be careful that you strike the nail, not your hand!


In baseball, a batter is “out” after three strikes.




Variety can indicate both a particular type and many different types:


That variety of plant thrives in the harsh Georgia soil.


The student’s SAT scores did not improve despite his tutor trying a variety of approaches to the material.



Wind up

With up can signal both the start and end of something:


Maintaining proper form during the wind up is essential if you want your pitch to be both fast and accurate.


I never thought Jillian, who hates children, would wind up with three of her own.