Grammar's not usually my jam, but I love a good word study. I thought I knew a lot about words, but I'd never heard about contronyms (which are technically grammar). Thanks to the BBC show QI, now I'm obsessed.

They're words that are their own opposites.


  • Bolt: to run away fast and to secure fast
  • Dust: the stuff and the what you do to remove
  • Puzzle: a conundrum and what you do to solve it
  • Sanction: to allow and to prevent

'Contronym' was coined in 1962, the year of my birth, and it's so rare you won't find it in the regular print Merriam-Webster dictionary -- only in the unabridged edition (and online, natch). The M-Ws even did an entire podcast segment on these little gems.

Check out my tips for getting better at grammar.

More kinds of words

Let's do a quick review of their cousins:

Antonyms: words of opposite meaning, like big and small. toxic and nontoxic

Homonyms: words that sound alike, but are spelled differently. examples: too, to and two

Related - Homographs (another one I'll leave to the pros):

  1. words that are spelled the same, but mean different things. lead (the metal), lead (the verb)
  2. one of two or more words spelled and pronounced alike but different in meaning (such as the noun quail and the verb quail)

Synonyms: there are actually two definitions for this. I'll let our friends at Merriam-Webster explain.

  1. one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses
  2. a word or phrase that by association is held to embody something (such as a concept or quality), like a tyrant whose name has become a synonym for oppression

Pro Tip: If you decide to give some of these a try, remember that context is key to avoiding confusion.

Related Content