My 5 favourite contranyms

Comments 2 by in General
September 19, 2011

A handicap can mean different things depending on context

Most of us have heard of antonyms; these are words that mean the opposite of another. For example, ‘hot’ is an antonym for ‘cold’.

Contranyms, on the other hand, are not so well-known. These are words that can mean two opposite things, depending on the context in which they are used. Eh?

OK, it’s time for some examples. Here are my five favourite contranyms:


A handicap is both a limitation that affects someone’s ability (e.g. someone with a broken leg is ‘handicapped’) and an advantage conferred to somebody in order to enable them to compete in a sports game. The most recognised example is the golfer’s handicap, a score which is subtracted from the total number of shots at the end of the game.

Hold Up

You can support your friend by holding him up. Conversely you can impede his progress by holding him up in a different sense.


It is both possible to rent your house for the use of tenants and to rent another house for yourself.


Oversight can be used in the context of supervision ,as in when your boss oversees a project. However, when something happens because you have failed to attend closely enough, you have made an oversight.


To sanction something can mean to give it the go ahead or to restrict it.

Other great contranyms include peer (nobility or friend?), refrain (to repeat or to hold back?), skinned (with or without?), transparent (invisible or blatant?) and variety (one of many or one of a kind?)

What others can you think of? Comments welcome!