Word Stories - May 15, 2023 - 4 min


When you buy pitted olives, do you expect them to have pits, the same way a big-boned chicken has big bones? Or do you expect the pits to have been removed from pitted olives, the same way a boned chicken no longer contains any bones? Words like boned and pitted can theoretically go either way, which means they can serve as their own antonyms. When farmers seed their fields with flax, for example, they’re adding seeds. When they go on to seed the flax, though, they’re removing seeds. This odd phenomenon of single words carrying perfectly opposite meanings is known by many names (antilogy, autantonymy, enantionymy, enantiosemy, etc.). Words that manage the feat are called contronyms.1 They’re sometimes also called Janus words (after Janus, the two-faced Roman god of doors who spent all his time looking in opposite directions). This Word Stories instalment examines a few of these linguistic curiosities.


The English word cleave can carry dramatically different meanings. People can cleave a branch from a tree, or cleave a tree in two (expressing a vivid image of separation), but on the other hand they can also cleave to their friends and loved ones (expressing a vivid image of union). The contradiction stems from the fact that cleave is not really—in etymological terms—just one word. The word for the former kind of cleaving is derived from the Old English verb clēofan, which meant “to split”. The King James Bible therefore tells the story of how Abraham “clave the wood for the burnt offering” (Genesis 22:3). The English word for cleaving in the sense of “sticking close” came from a completely different Old English word that meant “to adhere”: clifian. The 1534 Tyndale Bible exemplifies this usage by exhorting its readers to “cleaue unto that which is good” (Romans 12:9). Because later pronunciations and spellings of the two words were essentially the same, the homonyms cleave and cleave eventually merged to form a contronym.


The word hew can carry the rather contradictory meanings of “to cut apart” and “to adhere”. The word is derived from the Old English hēawan, which meant “to chop”, and the English verb to hew has always retained this meaning. Shakespeare famously wrote about destiny, for example, as “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will” (Hamlet, 1609). In some contexts, though, cutting and chopping can be relatively careful work, so Ralph Cudworth also wrote in the same century about the process by which “rude and Unpolish’d Stone is hewen into a beautiful Statue” (True Intellect, 1678). This latter image of cutting according to a deliberate plan or pattern gave rise to the phrase hew the line, which picked up the metaphorical connotation of sticking to plans or following orders (Harper’s, August 1891). This derivative connotation of faithful adherence has stayed with the word hew ever since. A good husband is expected, for example, to “hew to his marriage vows” (L. Leveen, Juliet’s Nurse, 2014). In this winding way, the verb hew has managed to evolve in two radically different directions.


The noun sanction can mean both “permission” and “punishment”, and the verb sanction can mean both “to permit or encourage” and “to forbid or punish”. The noun is rooted in the French sanction and the Latin sanctio, and like those words it originally described a legal decree (J. Foxe, Actes & Monumentes, 1570). In time, the word sanction also came to mean the punishment laid down for disobeying a given legal decree (W. Austin, Devotionis Augustinianæ Flamma, 1634). Still later, the meaning was further extended to include the rewards associated with obedience. It therefore became possible to speak of “the Sanction of Rewards and Punishments” (R. Cumberland, Treatise on the Laws of Nature, 1727), and to refer to a person’s sanction as an expression of their approval (as in A. Pope’s translation of The Iliad, 1720). English speakers still use the word sanction in this positive sense, but the negative meaning is very common, especially in the realm of politics. When nations want to punish each other, they block each other legally, in diplomatic and/or economic matters. This is known as imposing sanctions.

In the 18th century, the word sanction began to be used as a verb, to describe the process of enacting a law (T. Jefferson, Autobiography, 1778). This opened the door to contradictory uses of the new verb, following the pattern of the old noun. At first, to sanction meant “to permit” or even “to encourage” (A. Radcliffe, The Italian, 1797), and this meaning still survives today. In time, though, the negative connotations of the noun led people to use the verb to sanction as meaning “to penalize” (Universe 27, July 1956). In modern English, sanction (as both noun and verb) has thereby come to mean completely contradictory things.


In modern English, a citation expresses an official recognition that somebody has done something right. Soldiers receive citations for bravery, for example. A citation can also be an official indication, though, that a person has done something wrong, since the word is used to describe a legal order to appear in court. The latter legal meaning is the original one. Citation came into English via the Anglo-Norman citacion (which was inspired by the French and Late Latin equivalents citation and citatio), all of which mean “a summons” (The Metrical Chronicle of Robert of Gloucester, 1325). The verb to cite came soon after, meaning “to serve somebody with a summons” (N. H. Nicolas, Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council of England, 1438).

When confusion entered the picture, it was due to the influence of the related Latin root citare, which could refer to either summoning a person or quoting an author. The common connotation was the suggestion of activating somebody—a meaning preserved more clearly in other English words like excite and incite. The literary connotation of the Latin verb citare led people to use the English verb to cite in a similar way: to cite a person took on the additional meaning of mentioning them in writing (E. Fox et al., Determinations, 1531). The final twist came in the 20th century, when people began using cite and citation to describe positive, honorific mentions. Inspired by the 18th-century French military expression citation à l’ordre, the American army began giving out citations for exceptional service (The Tyrone Herald, 1901). The usage caught on, and before too long any kind of official honorable mention could be called a citation in everyday English (C. R. Decker & M. B. Decker, Place of Light, 1954). In this way, a clearly positive meaning was added to the potentially negative legal meaning of citation, both of which remain common today.

  1. For a parallel discussion of contronyms in French, see our Points de langue Report Ces mots qui disent une chose et son contraire.


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