The purpose of this paper is to examine the phenomenon of contronyms, also known as auto-antonyms, autantonyms, antagonyms, self-antonyms and Janus Words. Contronyms are words that are their own antonyms. (Note: here the term “contronym” is used to denote not only the word itself, but also the contradiction between its two different meanings).
I first became interested in the phenomenon while reading Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice”, where I encountered the use of the word “terrific” in its old, literal sense. Interestingly for me, there is a Hebrew word with a similar meaning (“נורא”), that went through a similar transformation process, although this happened much more recently (Hebrew being a revived language), and over much shorter period of time than had happened to its English counterpart. There is also a similar case in Russian (from which modern Hebrew speakers may have borrowed), but it is not used as often as in Hebrew. And, unlike in English, in neither Hebrew nor Russian has the word abandoned its original, “terrible” meaning.
For the purpose of this paper I am only interested in contronyms with common etymology (i.e. polysemy), as opposed to true homophones whose meanings are contradictory, such as the verbs “cleave”, “buckle” and “let”. The reason is that the latter seem to have acquired their identical spellings more or less accidentally, rather than as a result of cultural and psychological shifts through which the English-speaking societies went over certain periods of time. It is these shifts and their influence on language that interest me the most, and that I would like to begin to examine.