They’re called “contronyms” or, less elegantly, “auto-antonyms.” They’re words that are their own antonyms—that mean one thing and a polar-opposite thing at the same time—and they include terms like “sanction” (which can mean both to “ratify” and to “penalize”) and “seed” (to plant seeds and/or remove them) and “cleave” (to cling to and/or to separate). But there’s a special strain of contronym—one whose terms get their divergent meanings not from some long-lost whim of Latin or German or Proto-Indo-European, but from something both enduring and contemporary: human awkwardness.
Earlier this week, the magazine editor Hugo Lindgren wondered:
Is there a word in the English language that more reliably means its opposite than ‘amicable’?— HugoLindgren (@HugoLindgren) September 10, 2015
The responses to his tweet, as collected by the blogging economist Tyler Cowen, included “cordial” and “moot” and “nonplussed” and “spry.” Commenters to Cowen’s post added “need” and “must” and “transparent” to the collection.
But there were others—words, specifically, that owe their internal divergences to modern sociology rather than far-off etymology. There was “humbled,” which often connotes arrogance (see: “humblebrag” and its many derivatives). And “pal,” which often connotes “enemy.” (And “friend,” especially when it’s uttered by an American legislator, as in “my friend across the aisle.”) And “tolerance”—which, when selected as a noun, often suggests its own absence. And “classy.” And “sincerely,” whose presence in a sentence is often evidence of, you know, total insincerity. “Honestly,” for the same reason. “Respectfully,” too. And, of course, “literally,” which refers to both a literal state and … well, you know.