What is the term for words that can be used as the opposite of themselves?

I know there are a few of them out there, it is possible to 'Dust a cake with Icing' and if the cake were on a shelf for a long time (must be a bad bakery) then it would be acceptable to 'Dust the cake' to remove any dust particles...

In this case, 'Dust with Icing' implies the addition of something to the cake where 'Dust the cake' implies the action of removing dust from the cake

Other examples:

Bolt - To hold in place or to Run away with haste... Trim - To remove a small portion or to add small bits that make it pretty...

  • Can you elaborate on "opposing" or add another example. I'm not seeing how the two meanings of "to dust" are opposing actions. – Jay Jan 13 '11 at 4:16
  • Will make some edits now – dpmguise Jan 13 '11 at 4:17
  • I do not think the actions you described are necessarily opposing. Those words simply have multiple meanings. I'm not sure if there's a special word for this. Of course, there's innuendo and double entendre but that's for a word that has dual meaning, the undertone usually referencing something inappropriate. – Jimi Oke Jan 13 '11 at 4:26
  • I think dust is different from your other examples. The interesting thing about dust used in that sense is that the word de-dust would also mean "to remove dust". Another example is the verb bone that means "to remove the bones", which is identical to debone. There's also loosen and unloosen. (I've also seen examples like flammable/inflammable but that one isn't the in- for negation, but rather the in like "in flames", so it is just a misunderstanding, and not a "true" contradiction.) I have no idea if this phenomenon has an official name. – Kosmonaut Jan 13 '11 at 5:02
  • Interesting point about the de-dust, perhaps that is actually more technically correct to use... – dpmguise Jan 13 '11 at 5:41

This is an autoantonym, which has a number of variants enumerated on Wikipedia.

Someone coined antagonym in 1999.

  • Thanks, was an interesting read... I may not have expressed myself to well but this is definitely what I was trying to find out. – dpmguise Jan 13 '11 at 5:39
  • +1 It's always gratifying to see the desired answer turn up every time! – Jimi Oke Jan 13 '11 at 10:03

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.