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If you keep an eye on the assortment of websites devoted to aspects of English grammar you may have come across lists of contronyms. These often have an American slant to the definitions, and sometimes beg the question – is that really an ‘opposite’?
To maximise these listicles, phrasal verbs are included as single words and dependent prepositions are ignored. For instance bound for / bound by, clip to / clip off and being left / having left – all arguable.
These are contronyms:
to cleave – split apart or join together (archaic and curious)
to dust – to add fine particles (dust a sponge cake) or to remove fine particles (dust a shelf)
to screen – to protect or conceal or to show or broadcast
to strike – to hit or miss
to trim – to add (trim a hem) or or remove (trim a hedge)
to wear – endure or deteriorate
to weather – withstand (weather the storm) or wear away (weather the rock)
and how about:
fireman - the person extinguishing fire as a firefighter or stoking the fire on the footplate of a steam train.
Here are another couple of English language oddities:
flammable / inflammable – both can catch fire, but this looks like a word and its opposite. Here the ‘in’ isn’t a negative, it’s a prefix related to the construction of words like 'enflame'. Flammable is unambiguous and is the word I would choose.
peel / unpeel – synonyms which look like antonyms. Peel is older and well established and suits potatoes. Unpeel? It’s in use but seems unnecessary, though it specifically describes removing peel. Peel is the more versatile word for removing peel or skin or plastic or whatever.
Like to add any more English language anomalies?
Louisa Glancy is the Wednesday Features Editor for Words & Pictures.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @Louisa Glancy