Column: When opposites exact


Commentary by Curtis Honeycutt

Let’s think about “Lord of the Rings” for a minute (and all word nerds rejoiced!). Remember Sméagol/Gollum? Whether you read Tolkien’s three-part epic or you watched it on the big screen (or both), Sméagol is an unforgettable character. He can turn from endearing and sweet to greedy and vengeful within the same breath. Today, we’re going to look at the verbal equivalent of Sméagol: contranyms.

A contranym is a word that has multiple meanings, one of which is diametrically opposed to another. Contranyms also are known as antagonyms or autoantonyms. If we’re on an epic quest to destroy a magical super ring (in this case, the super ring is bad grammar), we have to watch out for contranyms (a.k.a., verbal Sméagols) along the way so we don’t veer off the path of syntactic truth.

Here’s an example of a contranym: left. Left can mean either departed or remaining. Depending on your sentence, you could end up left in the dark (see what I did there?). If Frodo leaves the other hobbits to go back to the Shire, who’s left? Depending on your definition of “left,” the answer is either Frodo or the other hobbits. Sneaky little hobbits!

“Throw out” is another tricky contranym. It could either mean to dispose of or to present for consideration. In the case of our hobbit friends in their journey to destroy the “one ring to rule them all,” throw out could change the outcome of the story depending on how it’s used. On one hand, the hobbits could throw out (dispose of) the ring into the molten lava of Mount Doom, thus fulfilling their mission. Alternatively, what if Sam threw out (presented for consideration) an idea in which the group of hobbit friends instead kept the ring so they could turn invisible whenever they wanted to sack Gandalf’s firework collection? Contranyms can really change the story.

I can think of an array of other contranyms. Some include dust, oversight, custom, buckle, bolt, refrain and trim. We’re probably much more familiar with synonyms, homonyms and antonyms. When we stumble on such a unique type of word like a contranym, it really can become something precious—just like the One Ring.