Words that are their own antonyms

1. Sanction (via French, from Latin sanctio
(n-) , from sancire ‘ratify,’) can mean ‘give
official permission or approval for (an
action)’ or conversely, ‘impose a penalty on.’
*
2. Oversight is the noun form of two verbs
with contrary meanings, “oversee” and
“overlook.” “Oversee,” from Old English
ofersēon ‘look at from above,’ means
‘supervise’ (medieval Latin for the same
thing: super- ‘over’ + videre ‘to see.’)
“Overlook” usually means the opposite: ‘to
fail to see or observe; to pass over without
noticing; to disregard, ignore.’
*
3. Left can mean either remaining or
departed. If the gentlemen have withdrawn
to the drawing room for after-dinner cigars,
who’s left? (The gentlemen have left and the
ladies are left.)
*
4. Dust , along with the next two words, is a
noun turned into a verb meaning either to
add or to remove the thing in question. Only
the context will tell you which it is. When
you dust are you applying dust or removing
it? It depends whether you’re dusting the
crops or the furniture.
*
5. Seed can also go either way. If you seed
the lawn you add seeds, but if you seed a
tomato you remove them.
*
6. Stone is another verb to use with caution.
You can stone some peaches, but please
don’t stone your neighbor (even if he says
he likes to get stoned).
*
7. Trim as a verb predates the noun, but it
can also mean either adding or taking away.
Arising from an Old English word meaning
‘to make firm or strong; to settle, arrange,’
“trim” came to mean ‘to prepare, make
ready.’ Depending on who or what was
being readied, it could mean either of two
contradictory things: ‘to decorate something
with ribbons, laces, or the like to give it a
finished appearance’ or ‘to cut off the
outgrowths or irregularities of.’ And the
context doesn’t always make it clear. If
you’re trimming the tree are you using tinsel
or a chain saw?
*
8. Cleave can be cleaved into two
“homographs,” words with different origins
that end up spelled the same. “Cleave,”
meaning ‘to cling to or adhere,’ comes from
an Old English word that took the forms
cleofian, clifian, or clīfan. “Cleave,” with the
contrary meaning ‘to split or sever
(something), ‘ as you might do with a
cleaver, comes from a different Old English
word, clēofan. The past participle has taken
various forms: “cloven,” which survives in
the phrase “cloven hoof,” “cleft,” as in a
“cleft palate” or “cleaved.”
*
9. Resign works as a contronym in writing.
This time we have homographs, but not
homophones. “Resign,” meaning ‘to quit,’ is
spelled the same as “resign,” meaning ‘to
sign up again,’ but it’s pronounced
differently.
*
10. Fast can mean "moving rapidly," as in
"running fast," or ‘fixed, unmoving,’ as in
"holding fast." If colors are fast they will not
run. The meaning ‘firm, steadfast’ came first.
The adverb took on the sense ‘strongly,
vigorously,’ which evolved into ‘quickly,’ a
meaning that spread to the adjective.
*
11. Off means ‘deactivated,’ as in "to turn
off," but also ‘activated,’ as in "The alarm
went off."
*
12. Weather can mean ‘to withstand or come
safely through,’ as in “The company
weathered the recession,” or it can mean ‘to
be worn away’: “The rock was weathered.”
*
13. Screen can mean ‘to show’ (a movie) or
‘to hide’ (an unsightly view).
*
14. Help means ‘assist,’ unless you can’t
help doing something, when it means
‘prevent.’

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