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.
What became clear, in Cowen’s post and in the comments it received, is that we haven’t yet found an adequate term to describe those socially yin-yanged words. We haven’t yet settled on a way to capture the full irony of what’s happening when I ask you if you like my haircut and you respond, “It’s nice.” Or, worse, “It’s fine.”
So here’s one proposal: Let’s call these words “smarmonyms.” Because they’re the words that exist because we English-speakers can be, at times, awkward and passive-aggressive and jerky and, yes, a little bit smarmy. We could, if we stretch the definition just a little bit, include phrases like “no offense”—is there ever a time when that phrase isn’t followed by something wildly offensive?—or “I hope you’re happy.”
We could stretch it to include all manner of terms that we have ironized and de-meaninged and re-meaninged. It could be useful. Honestly.