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Wordplay: Contronyms: To sanction or to sanction?

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.

There are some words in English we may not know whether to sanction. They are so impregnated with meaning that their meaning may seem impregnable. If you try to hold them fast, you may find them too fast to hold; at best, you can hope that (of the senses available) one will have left and you will be left with the one that’s left. If, for instance, you ask someone to dust something and find instead they have dusted it, you might understandably lose your temper and have a fit of temper—especially if you are an inflammable, rather than inflammable, kind of person.

How do such self-opposite words—what Jack Herring labelled contronyms—come about? Sometimes it’s because sense and form cleave apart, and sometimes it’s because they cleave together. When they cleave, it’s typically because of a sense that cuts both ways; when they cleave, it’s likely because of forms being attracted by resemblance.

It may have started by coincidence. Latin had a prefix: in-, which referred to entry and commencement, and was related to the Germanic prefix in. It also happened to have another prefix: in- indicating negation, which was related to the Greek prefix an- and the Germanic prefix un-. Both of them can also change to il- before l (as you do when you illuminate the illiterate), to ir before r (as when it would be irresponsible to irrigate), and to im- before m, b, and p. Usually, this works fine; as a given word uses one or the other, and there is no confusion. But sometimes people reconstrue the meaning. Inflammable came to be back-formed to flammable and the in- taken as meaning “not”—sometimes.

But then sometimes people change word forms to what they think they’re supposed to be by their resemblance to other word forms. Take the word imprenable. The pren is the same as in the French prener (“take”). But somewhere in the 1500s some writers thought it should have a silent g as in reign and deign (both of which came down from Latin and stopped being pronounced), and so they made it impregnable. Perhaps by coincidence (or perhaps not), just around the same time, English borrowed the Latin impraegnare (“make pregnant”) and converted it to impregnate.

The seeds of confusion were thus sown on the basis of wanton cleaving to resemblance. This is also what happened in the case of cleofan and clifian, two Old English words. They were pronounced much like clave and cleave, respectively (plus suffixes, of course). Cleofan meant “sever” and clifian meant “adhere.” But over the centuries, the sounds spelled eo and ea shifted. Meanwhile, the pronunciation of clifian, which could have changed to resemble “clive,” stayed the same and the spelling shifted because there was this other word so much like it that had a very closely related sense.

Are opposites closely related? Indeed: differing only in one polarity. Sometimes opposites attract, meeting at the point of commonality and facing opposite directions. Sometimes the confusion comes not from fusion but fission: a nucleus of meaning that splits and heads in opposite directions. Take sanction, for instance. That sanct is the same as in sanctify; a sanction is a decree rendered inviolable – sanctified, given divine authority. But decrees can permit or prohibit. And so you can sanction an activity—expressly allow it—or sanction it—expressly prohibit it. Similarly, dust as a verb, converted from a noun, means to do something with dust, but that something can just as readily be to add dust as to remove it.

Sometimes the cleavage of forms is not so fast; it comes about gradually as the sense does not hold fast. Certain turns of phrase may help make the phrase become less certain and turn away. Take fast for example. Its first sense was “firmly fixed,” and, as an adverb, “in a firmly fixed manner.” But in the adverb sense it came to mean “very near” or “following closely,” as in fast beside and fast by. Shifting to a temporal sense, we came to have as fast as meaning “as soon as.” From that, fast came to have a sense of “quickly, swiftly,” which was then transferred to the adjective form. (Yes, fast meant “rapidly” before it meant “rapid.”) And now the original sense has mostly left and the newer sense is what is left.

That last sentence, by the way, holds the key to the Janus face of left. Leave can be intransitive—“depart”—or transitive—“depart from.” In either case, the one doing the departing is the one that has left; in the transitive, the one departed from is the one that is left: I leave it behind me, so it is left behind me. It’s not a real contradiction; it only seems so when an important word (is or has) is left out.

And sometimes contronyms come about because of sloppiness—they acquire a dusting of another sense because we don’t do the dusting on the original sense. Temper, for instance, has always meant “keep in due proportion, regulate”; it’s the source of temperance and temperature, after all. If you get angry, you lose your temper; just as you can have bad health, you can have a bad temper. But we are sometimes intemperate in our use of partial phrases. Bad temper can become just temper, and temper, temper! may be taken as meaning not “Let’s have some temper,” but “Let’s not have some temper.”

There are, of course, quite a lot more contronyms in the language. You are sure to find more—and the keys to their Janus-faced natures—if you look through a dictionary.

James Harbeck is a web editor, print designer, and trained linguist. Read his blog at and articles at

This article was copy edited by Karen Kemlo.

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