There is a single word that can be used to describe these, and I'm having trouble remembering it. I think it might be a '-nym' word or a '-phone', but I can't remember.

An example would be handicap, which can be used to describe an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on the context.

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    Aside: a handicap is a disadvantage, not an advantage. A golfer's handicap is used to disadvantage them in play, although it may be used to express how good a player is. Jan 10, 2021 at 11:00
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    A better example might be "to cleave" = (i) to split [something] apart (ii) to adhere tightly [to something]. More examples at theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-1365,00.html
    – Greybeard
    Jan 10, 2021 at 11:04

2 Answers 2


A contronym (or contranym) is a word that can have opposite meanings. Lexico has


A word with two opposite meanings, e.g. sanction (which can mean both ‘a penalty for disobeying a law’ and ‘official permission or approval for an action’).

Some example sentences might be

We have decided to sanction Countranomia for its illegal actions by ceasing trade.

We have decided to sanction aid for Countranomia because of the famine.


An auto-antonym or autantonym, also called a contronym, contranym or Janus word, is a word with multiple meanings (senses) of which one is the reverse of another. For example, the word cleave can mean "to cut apart" or "to bind together". This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy (enantio- means "opposite"), antilogy or autantonymy. An enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic.

The terms "autantonym" and "contronym" were coined by Joseph Twadell Shipley in 1960 and Jack Herring in 1962, respectively. An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god Janus, who is usually depicted with two faces),

See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auto-antonym

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