Seven Curiously Contrarian Words in the English Language

Some words in English inexplicably have a defined meaning and then also mean the exact opposite of that meaning. These are known as contronyms or Janus words – the latter derived from the Roman god of beginnings and endings, often depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions).


To give official permission or approval for an action.

To impose a penalty upon someone/something.

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A verb meaning to oversee, derived from Old English ofersēon: to look from above.

A verb meaning to overlook or to pass over without noticing.

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3. Dusting

If you dust crops you add chemicals.

If you dust furniture you remove dust particles.

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4. Trimming

Derived from Old English the verb to trim means to make firm, strong, settled or arranged; i.e. a Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

However trimming as a verb refers to paring back or pruning overgrown trees – the opposite.

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5. To cleave

One form of the verb derives from Old English and means to cling or adhere to something. (cleofian, clifian, or clīfan.)

The other form of the verb to cleave comes from a past participle of the word: cloven. You would know the term cloven hoof. This is the other meaning of cleave: cloven/separated.

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6. Fast

Fast generally means moving rapidly or at speed.

Yet colours, glue and materials can be held fast in one place.  The latter meaning derives from the term steadfast.

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7. Clip

You can clip sheets or papers together to be bound. This comes from Old English: clyppan, to clasp with the arms, embrace or hug.

However you can also clip away or snip parts of an object away. The latter meaning comes from the Old Norse word Klippa meaning the sound made by shears.

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Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

4 thoughts on “Seven Curiously Contrarian Words in the English Language

    1. Totally yes! English is littered with all of these little landmines that are annoying. For example a friend of mine says “hairs” to describe her hair as a whole, as in “my hairs are getting long” which logic would say would be correct but it is infact that opposite. When you pull at a few strands of hair it is called “hairs”, whereas your whole head of hair getting cut is referred to as “cutting your hair”…yet another example of how ridiculous English is!


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