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5 Words That Have Opposite Meanings

Ria has been writing for over a decade now and probably enjoys linguistics and research more than the average person.

Words with dual meanings

Words with dual meanings

Words With Double Meanings

Though we often think of words as having 1 set meaning, words can actually often have multiple meanings depending on context. Usually, we figure these meanings out over time and with experience so that they no longer confuse us. The word lie, for instance, can mean both a falsehood and a horizontal position. Context tells us that the sentence, "The girl is lying on the bed," probably has nothing to do with her telling untruths about the place where she sleeps.

But things can get a bit more confusing when words have a secondary meaning that is the complete opposite of the primary meaning.

Here are 5 words that can mean both something and that thing's opposite.

1. Cleave

The word cleave comes from an Old English word that can mean both to cling to and to separate.

Usually, when cleave takes the first meaning, it's part of the phrase cleave to, which can make it easier to distinguish from its other meaning. "She cleaves to her books," is more likely to refer to someone being an intense bibliophile than to someone tearing apart a library with a hatchet.

2. Peer

Depending on the context, peer can mean one's equal in class or status, or one's superior in class or status.

Typically when you see this word, it has the first meaning. The phrase, "a jury of one's peers," for instance, means that the jury is comprised of people equal in status/class to the person on trial. If a paper in a scientific journal has been peer-reviewed, then it has been reviewed by people who are equal in experience to the person or people who wrote the paper to ensure that everybody agrees with the facts the paper presents.

But peer can also refer to members of the nobility, such as in the word peerage. Unless you're also nobility, you're not going to find many of your peers amongst the peerage.

"Dust" has conflicting meanings

"Dust" has conflicting meanings

3. Dust

Dust, as a verb, can mean to add dust to or to remove dust from, making it another word that relies very heavily on context to figure out the appropriate meaning.

If you dust a table, you're probably removing dust from that table to make it cleaner. If you dust crops, you're applying small particles (ie, dust) of insecticide to those crops.

If you took a feather duster to a cornfield, you could dust the crops after the crops have been dusted.

Though I'm not sure why you'd want to.

4. Clip

Clip is a verb that can mean to hold together, or to cut away, making it very similar to cleave. Most of the time when we see the word used, it has the second meaning, such as clipping hair to shorten it, or when somebody's words are clipped, meaning they're abbreviated, cut-off.

But it can also be used in the opposite fashion, such as clipping pages together for a report, with a paper clip. You're not cutting those pages away, but fastening them so that they stay together.

Seed as a verb can mean two different things

Seed as a verb can mean two different things

5. Seed

As with most of the other words, when seed is used as a verb, it can mean to add seeds to something, or to remove seeds from something. Again, we have to rely on context to figure out the meaning. For instance, when a farmer seeds their crops, they are adding seeds to the ground, so that crops can grow. But if somebody seeds an apple, they are removing the seeds from that apple.

Since both uses of seed can involve produce, it can sometimes be legitimately difficult to tell the intended meaning. If the farmer seeds the watermelons, is he planting a watermelon crop or is he painstakingly taking the seeds out of watermelon slices? With that phrase, one interpretation is just as likely as the other, and additional information would be needed to figure out the correct meaning based on the speaker or writer's intent.

Context Matters

There are more than merely 5 words in English that have dual meanings. Their very existence demonstrates that language is a complex thing, and that context can be extremely important for correctly determining their intended meaning.

These were just a few such words. If you can think of any others, feel free to comment them so that we can all appreciate the strangeness that is the English language!

Questions & Answers

Question: What is the term for a word that has dual, opposite definitions?

Answer: Excellent question! My research tells me that such a word is called an auto-antonym (sometimes contracted to autantonym) or a contranym.


Elijah A Alexander Jr from Washington DC on July 04, 2019:

Ria, Thanks for especially for the opposing definitions for "cleave" because it reveals why the KJV of the Bible used in Genesis 2:24. To properly interpret the Adam and Eve metaphor it makes sense to use that word, it keeps us confused, but not me.

When we actually understand that God did not tell Adam of the operation unless in a dream that revealed someone was removed from him. It suggests she was present upon his awakening so he called her "woven from man" since he knew he was a man. But in calling her that the was also saying he was also "woven from her" and means woman are to man what caterpillars are to butterflies as revealed at the flood with "the sons of god" or Genesis 1 man "saw the daughters of men" or Adam and Eve's descendants. So the "therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall 'cleave' unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh" is saying leave the physical wife and they each are integrate the attribute missing from themselves that the physical form represents, their Yang and Yin or femininity and masculinity.

In my "Why Be Born Again" and most places I reference Adam and Eve I say that and not you have justified it to me. Thank you very much.