A Way With Words: Contronyms – Our Write Side

I have always been a Word Nerd.

When other people are fighting Angry Birds and building virtual farms, I am hunting for hidden words in a grid, filling in crosswords, and concocting clever (in my mind) puns.

The mental calisthenics of word games is more challenging and fulfilling for me than games of dexterity.

Some of the most entertaining words are contronyms. Those word pairs that are spelled and pronounced the same, but not only have different definitions, but have contradicting meanings.

Take the word, “sanguine.” It can mean “optimistic,” or “bloodthirsty.”

He patiently waited with the groundless, sanguine hopes only a canine can possess.”

Lies, sweet as honey, drip from her sanguine lips.”

The word “dust” can be used either as a noun meaning, “a fine, dry powder,” or as a verb, that both means “to remove the top layer of dust from a surface” and also “to apply a layer of fine powder to the surface.”

Learn (Scavenger hunt)

Twisting her left foot, she scuffed the ground, creating a mound of loose dust.”

I dusted off my daughter’s old high school laptop.”

Dust the top of the cake with powdered sugar.”

Screen” can mean, “to show,” and “to hide.”

During the summer, the resort screens movies in its open-air theater.”

She planted thick shrubs to screen her house from the road.”

These dual-definition words are often taken for granted. We don’t think about how we use them in our writing, because they are so engrained in our vocabulary. I would venture to guess, most of the time their contrary definitions rarely are considered.

Yet, because of their double meanings, it can be fun to take advantage of that. Use their conflicting nature to create puns, or word puzzles in your stories.

Use dust to mean dust.

When you write that a character, “dusted the top of the cake” it was because it was so old a layer of grime had settled on it.

Short list of contronyms and their meanings:

  • bolt – securely fasten; run away suddenly
  • cleave – to cut apart; to cling to
  • custom – established practice; specially made
  • fine – good enough; high quality
  • garnish – to add to (as with food); to take away (as with wages)
  • give out – to distribute; to stop functioning
  • grade – to level a surface; the degree of a slope
  • left – to depart; the portion remaining
  • model – an excellent example; a copy
  • peer – a member of nobility; a person of equal status
  • refrain – to stop from doing something; to repeat
  • seed – to plant; to remove seeds
  • trim – add decoration; remove excess
  • trip – a journey; to stumble
  • weather – withstand; wear away