One word, two opposing meanings


The points of the compass provide us with an interesting example of one word having two opposite meanings:

A westerly wind is coming from the west.

A person travelling in a westerly direction is going to the west.

The same is true for all the directions. Admittedly, ‘from the west’ appears to be limited to meteorological contexts (see OED examples) but it still seems to me to be unusual for a word to be so diametrically opposed – to itself.

Are there any other words that exhibit this potentially confusing feature?


  1. I took five years to raise this building, and five hours to raze it. (Don’t be unfair and say it doesn’t count because the spelling’s different!)

  2. Cleave (together) and cleave (apart)?

  3. See Google’s article (one example is ‘fast’)

    An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contranym (originally spelled contronym), is a word with a homograph (a word of the same spelling) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). Variant names include antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god), enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, addad (Arabic, singular didd).[1] [2] It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is also called “enantionymy” or “antilogy.” (one example is ‘fast’)

  4. “Moot” has an interesting sort of self-antagonism in usage between its historical meaning as “open to debate”, and its (largely American) practical meaning as “irrelevant”.

  5. Jamie – good examples, but cleave and cleave are slightly different as they have different Old English ancestry. They come under Jack’s category of “contronym: a word with a homograph (a word of the same spelling) that is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning)”. Alexander – Raise and raze are certainy antonyms, but not quite contronyms. Westerly, however, is the ‘same’ word whatever its meaning.

  6. It has just struck me that “smoke” (vb) is an auto-antonym of sorts, because it can mean both give off smoke and take in smoke.

  7. Does “enjoin” count? If you enjoin someone to do an act, you are ordering him to do it. If you enjoin someone from doing something, you are prohibiting the act. The latter example does require the preposition “from” and one may argue that it’s effectively a phrasal verb.

  8. Sanction is another of these words: When we sanction an action, we give it our blessing, but Europe is applying sanctions against the Syrian authorities at the moment, and this is forbidding certain actions.

  9. There’s another good list of them here:

  10. How about the Polish word ‘zawód’, which means both ‘career’ and ‘disappointment’?

    Depending on your circumstances, those could be synonyms or antonyms.

  11. If we’re bringing in other languages, then Hindi “kal” ( कल ) means both “yesterday” and “tomorrow”.

  12. In Latin we’ve got “im-mūtātus”, which can mean both “changed” (with the prefix “in-” meaning a figurative motion) and “unchanged” (with “in-” in its negative sense).

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