Is there such a thing in the English language as words or phrases that can mean a something or its opposite depending on the context in which they are employed, without the use of sarcasm?

If so, how are they named?

3 Answers 3


Wikipedia has a pretty long list of names for words like this:

An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contronym (also spelled contranym), is a word with a homograph (another word of the same spelling) which is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god), enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd). It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy, or antilogy.

EDIT: If anyone's interested, here's a brief video that explains the etymologies of some common auto-antonyms (the video uses the term "contronyms").

  • 5
    "Janus word" is a pretty good one indeed. Mar 24, 2015 at 14:34
  • 1
    this is exactly what I was looking for, thank you.
    – Mr__Mitch
    Mar 24, 2015 at 14:55
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    Hmph. Well, at least this one’s better than Janus-faced, I suppose … Mar 31, 2015 at 20:48

Are you referring perhaps to auto-antonyms? (Also known by other names, such as contranyms.)


This is a quite good term: "chameleon words"

The Way of Words: An Informal Logic - Page 71

Ronald Munson - 1976

But chameleon words have no identity separate from their disguises. They are what they are made to be by the users of the words.

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