Opposites Attract; in Languages too

They say opposites attract, and none more so than contronyms; these words are so fond of their opposites that they in fact are their opposites. Don’t quite understand? Let me explain with some examples.

There are certain words within the English language that are predominantly used in one way, but can be used in a different way in order to function as the opposite. These contronyms, sometimes also referred to as auto-antonyms or self-antonyms, are similar to homophones and homographs, except that they are more difficult to spot, and rather than simply having a different meaning, they directly contradict each other, for example:

  • If I tell you to turn out the lights, afterwards you cannot see them; then I can tell you go outdoors because the stars are out, these you can see.
  • To refrain from doing something is to stop, but it can also mean to repeat, such as the section of a song.
  • When you rock in a chair you sway from side to side, but when you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, it refers to a large unmovable object.
  • If you have a temper, you are considered angry, but if you temper your expectations, you soften or lower them.

There are numerous others too. These contradictory little fellows exist in words you might not expect them to. There also exists the oxymoron, a similar beast taking pleasure in the company of contradiction; the oxymoron is a phrase or pair of words that are opposites, yet when combined take some form of meaning. Take for example: Great Depression; Act naturally; Deafening silence; Living dead; Random order; Run slowly; Wake up dead; Liquid food.



A number of phrases have been used to great effect by several well-known individuals, like: “I can resist anything, except temptation” (Oscar Wilde); “Modern dancing is so old fashioned” (Samuel Goldwyn); “I am a deeply superficial person” (Andy Warhol); and “Always be sincere, even though you do not necessarily mean it” (Irene Peter).

Sometimes people say these to be funny, to add some spice or dramatic effect to the topic of conversation, unfortunately some people use them without knowing, but this can be humorous to the ones that pick up on the mistake.

Last but by no means least, we have the malapropism, providing some more than welcome laughter to the topic. The malapropism is the incorrect use of a phrase, usually by the replacement of a word with one that’s similar yet out of place. I don’t think there is anybody better to illustrate this than the great NY Yankees outfielder, Yogi Berra.


We have perhaps all used one or two of his mangled speeches: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” comes to mind very quickly; they’re called Yogisms and there are some greats, so let’s not waste any time:

  • “90% of the game is all mental.”
  • “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.”
  • “It’s deja vu all over again.”
  • “Always go to other people’s funerals, otherwise they won’t go to yours.”
  • “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I hope that’s all been fun and informative, in the end “I really didn’t say everything I said.” Sorry that’s some more Yogi for you.

Can you think of other strange phrases that contradict themselves? Have you ever accidentally said something that didn’t make any sense?