Words that mean the opposite of what they mean

Come on English! Get your crap together! You’ve got antonyms and synonyms and homonyms—even capitonyms (that’s words that change meaning based on whether or not they’re capitalized: ‘Polish’ vs. ‘polish.’) But what are writers supposed to do with words that, depending on how you use them, can convey meanings that are diametrically opposed? Let’s take a look at a few of these two-faced words:

Fearful: Full or fear? Or causing fear? I vote we keep the second meaning, because it gave us the badass phrase ‘Fearful Symmetry.” Actually, William Blake gave us that phrase, and it’s been used in a hella bunch of media since then.

Dubious: Full of doubt? Or causing doubt? The words ‘suspicious’ and ‘doubtful’ have this same kind of shenanigans going on. There’s no way that this sentence should be allowed to make sense: “Anne was suspicious of the suspicious stranger.” Shouldn’t Anne and the stranger be commiserating on their mutual suspiciousness?

Nonplussed: I always assumed this meant ‘unperturbed.’ I guess that proves I’m an informal American; because in standard English (as in dictionaries or across the pond) the word means ‘surprised and confused.’

Cleave: And I guess I don’t have much in the way of literary inclinations, because I think of ‘cleave’ as meaning ‘to split or sever.’ For hoity-toities, ‘cleave’ means ‘to cling or adhere.’

As I wind up this post (Wait… do I mean ‘wind up’ like a toy or ‘wind up’ like some yarn, because those are opposites too!), I’ll ask you… what two-faced words drive you crazy?

5 thoughts on “Words that mean the opposite of what they mean

  1. The word left drives me crazy. For example: After I left the room, she was the only one left. Does it make sense that left can mean both departed and remaining? Only in English. You have to love it….

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