25 Words that are their own opposites

Mar 4, 2014 at 2:43 p.m. ET
Image: Muharrem Aner/E+/Getty Images

Sometimes words have multiple personalities, too. Be careful using these 25 words that have two definitions that are exact opposites!

Bad things can happen when homographs (two words with the same spelling that don't mean the same thing) mean the opposite thing and create auto-antonyms (aka contronyms).

1. Apparent

Apparent means obvious, but it can also mean something believed to be true based on observation that later proved untrue based on evidence.

2. Awful

Most people would mean really bad if they used this word, but it can also mean worthy of awe.

3. Bill

A bill is something submitted to a customer showing how much is owed or the legal tender one uses to pay for goods or services.

4. B****

This word for a female of certain carnivorous mammalian species (i.e., canines) can be used to refer to something or someone who is difficult or unpleasant. But it's also used to reference someone who is weak or submissive.

5. Bolt

You can bolt (secure) your door to keep yourself safe from harm or bolt (run away) in the other direction.

6. Buckle

Buckle can mean to fasten (as in a seat belt) or to bend and collapse under weight or pressure.

7. Cleave

Cleave can mean to be split or cut in two, but a lesser-known meaning is to adhere or cling to.

8. Clip

You can use scissors to clip (cut) a piece of paper in half, then use a paperclip to clip (fasten) them back together.

9. Consult

Consult means to get assistance (to consult a dictionary), but it can also mean to provide help (to be paid to consult on a project).

10. Deceptively (plus an adjective)

The question here always lies in where the deception is. If a very intelligent person feigns stupidity to cause people to underestimate her, she could be said to be deceptively smart. The boss whose job she takes may also be deceptively smart — less intelligent than everyone thought he was.

11. Dust

Dust the noun is a collection of fine particles of matter. The verb form (to dust), however, can mean to remove dust (to dust the furniture) or to sprinkle with a fine substance (to dust a cake with powdered sugar).

12. Fast

On the football field, a receiver has to run fast (move quickly), while a defensive lineman has to hold fast (stand firm).

13. First degree

You don't want to be accused of first-degree murder (the most severe), but if you get a sunburn, you don't want it to go above first degree (the least severe).

14. Fight with

If you fight with someone, he or she could be your opponent (the person you're competing against) or your ally (someone you fight alongside). You could also be referring to your weapon of choice.

15. Garnish

Garnish means to add enhancements (as in food), but it can also mean to take away (as in your wages).

16. Help

If you help someone with something, you're providing assistance, but if you can't help doing something, you're incapable of preventing it.

17. Left

Left can either mean remaining behind or going away. We've all left a restaurant and later realized we left our cell phone there.

18. Literally

For years, grammarians battled against saying "literally" when you mean "figuratively." In 2013, Merriam-Webster officially recognized the word's hyperbolic meaning as a way to emphasize that something has the effect of actually happening. (Her discovery literally turned the world upside down.)

19. Oversight

Oversight can mean to supervise or manage, but it can also mean to fail to see or observe, which isn't conducive to good management.

20. Sanction

If you sanction something, you are either imposing a penalty or giving formal approval.

21. Screen

If you screen a movie, you show it. If you screen something from view, you hide it.

22. Seed

To seed could mean to remove the seeds (as in a bell pepper) or to add seeds, as in to seed your lawn.

23. Toss out

If you decide to toss out a potential solution, do you mean to submit or to discard it?

24. Quantum

It may seem strange that a quantum particle is the smallest amount of certain forms of energy, such as light, while a quantum leap is a huge step forward (usually in a field of study), but there is a simple explanation. The quantum field theory may relate to tiny particles, but it was a huge advancement in physics.

25. Variety

Variety can refer to one type of something (golden delicious is a variety of apple), but it can also mean multiple types (a variety of apples means they aren't all golden delicious).

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