We Are Literally Obsessed With Contranyms

Aug 15, 2013

The recent outrage over Google providing the WRONG—in our humble opinion—definition of literally as a viable one, got the digital team thinking about other words whose meanings have changed over time. These so called ‘Janus Words’ or ‘contranyms’ are single words that have two opposite, but ostensibly correct, meanings. The first one that came to mind was ‘decimate’ which historically meant to kill one of ten soldiers or other members of the group as punishment for all. Now the word is more typically used to describe a large percentage of destruction. Here are a few other contranyms—that aren’t quite as annoying as the new alternate meaning of literally—that we forgot existed.

Credit Logan Shannon / NHPR

1. Cleave: verb (past clove /klōv/ or cleft /kleft/ or cleaved /klēvd;/ past participle cloven /klōvən/ or cleft or cleaved)

split or sever (something), especially along a natural line or grain

2. Cleave: verb [no object] (cleave to) literary

adhere strongly to (a particular pursuit or belief)

“Mary cleaved the wood stump with one swift swing of the axe, which inspired her to cleave to her dream of being a lumberjack.”

Credit Logan Shannon / NHPR

1. Garnish: verb [with object] /gärniSH/

decorate or embellish (something, especially food)

2. Garnish: verb [with object] /gärniSH/

seize (money, especially part of a person’s salary) to settle a debt or claim

She warned Zach about the dangers of eating the garnish, but still had to garnish the parsley sprig from his plate to prevent him from giving into temptation.”

1. Moot: adjective /mo͞ot/

subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty, and typically not admitting of a final decision

2. Moot: adjective /mo͞ot/

North American having no practical significance, typically because the subject is too uncertain to allow a decision

“The debate over the proper definition of the word was initially moot, until they discovered the alternate definition rendering the debate moot.”

1. Nervy: adjective /nərvē/

North American informal bold or impudent

2. Nervy: adjective /nərvē/

chiefly British easily agitated or alarmed; nervous

“She found the way in which he insisted that his opinion was correct nervy and told him so, at which point he became nervy and quickly backed away.”

Credit Logan Shannon / NHPR

1. Sanction: verb [with object] /saNG(k)SHən/

give official permission or approval for (an action)

2. Sanction: verb [with object] /saNG(k)SHən/

impose a sanction or penalty on

“Her initial request to bring her thirteen cats into her office cube was sanctioned until it was discovered that the C.E.O. of her company was allergic at which point anyone caught with a cat in their office was sanctioned.”

What about you, are there any contranyms you particularly enjoy? Let us know in the comments.