Thursday, April 30, 2015


Janus A few years ago, I was awestruck with the cleverness of this winning clue from the Azed Slip Archive:

The jungly mass one cleaves (7) MACHETE
[M (mass) +ACE (one)] cleaves i.e. holds (THE)* 
The whole clue is the definition: a machete is something that cleaves i.e. cuts through the jungly mass.

This clue plays on a special property of 'cleave': the word has two meanings diametrically opposed to each other. The clue's wordplay uses one meaning of 'cleave' (to hold/cling), while its definition uses the opposite (to cut/divide).

Thanks to a Mental Floss article, I found a name for such words with contradictory meanings. They are called contronyms (or contranyms), from the Latin contr[a] (contrary, in opposition) + –onym. Contronyms go by many other names: autoantonyms, antagonyms, or Janus words, called so after the Roman god of beginnings and endings, usually depicted with two faces looking in opposite directions. [T-Rex must be alone in calling them homographic homophonic autantonyms.]

A few examples we use commonly: DUST (to remove dust; to add dust), SCREEN (to show; to conceal), VARIETY (many types; a specific type). The folks at DailyWritingTips have compiled a pretty long list. Many contronyms are formed due to the prefix 'RE-' added to imply 'again': this meaning may contradict a separate meaning. RESIGN (renew a contract; give up on a contract), REPROVE (support or prove again; strongly disapprove), REPLACE (restore to initial position; remove from initial position) are some such words.

As you can guess, contronyms have great potential in cryptic clueing. They make even the basic double definition delightful.

Times 25889: Good or bad (6) WICKED
Independent 8822 (Phi): Spring and fall (4) TRIP

Contronyms can add mystery to the clue's definition.

Guardian 26124 (Nutmeg): Using old Latin in will could be wise or foolish (6) OWLISH
O (old) + L (Latin) in WISH (will). 'Owlish' could mean wise or foolish.

Or they can act as deceptive double-edged indicators.

Can you think of contronyms in other languages? One in Hindi is कल (KAL), which might mean yesterday/in the past or tomorrow/in the future.

Solve These

A few contronym-based clues for you to solve.

Times 25743: Making harder or softer (9) T________
Times 23609: On right, with fixed agenda, no Democrat! (6) ___G__
Guardian 25731 (Rufus): Certainly less than 50% (3,4) ___ H___

Related Posts:

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Sowmya said...

Good article Shuchi. I love contranyms and try and use them in clues whenever I can.

Here are my answers.l


Here's one of mine.,

Solid liquid (7)

Arvind Ramaswamy said...

Thanks for the informative post Shuchi :-)

1. Tempering
3. Not Half

Kishore said...

Tempering Reagan? Not half!

Kishore said...

In Hindi, I can think of Khaa'na (not the noun for food) or Khao'na i. Please do eat, when spoken with a specific lilt denoting affection ii. Dont eat, the na being treated as a negative tag. This probably applies to many similar words like jaa'na, suno'na, etc

Kishore said...

Remembered that in Bangla, the two 'kal's are burdened with further baggage 'the past' and 'the coming' as prefixes to convey whether the correspondent is talking of yesterday or tomorrow.

Kishore said...

Curiousl when you add 2 plus 2, you make deductions

JerryW said...

A remarkable coincidence, that the "Times For The Times" blog highlighted contronyms only yesterday! And "cleave" was the word in question. Your readers might be interested to see the long list of contronyms that the comments to the blog have a link to.
Or is it perhaps not quite such a coincidence?!

Ramki Krishnan said...

Answers to the 3 clues:



Shuchi said...

Hi Jerry, 100% coincidence. I hadn't seen the post at T4tT, would have mentioned it if I had :-)

On the question of contronym vs contranym: I read that the suffix supersedes the root, so the 'a' in contra gets dropped and 'contronym' is the technically correct spelling.

Thanks for pointing out the long list of contronyms.

vasant said...

Urdu has so many: saher; hindi too ; remembered school time grammar:Yamak alankar( kanak kanak te sau guni, madakta adhikay);
Gujrati language is full of contronyms: ubha raho:(wait as well as stand)
In Tamil one says vare(paith) meaning Im coming when he is actually leaving

Kishore said...

Penalty for parking? That's perfect! (4)

Type of American committee responsible for mistake, maybe? (9)

Shuchi said...

@Sowmya: Still thinking about your clue...need a letter hint!

@Arvind: Glad you liked it :-)

@Kishore: Your first comment reminds me of Emily Jo Cureton's drawings.

@Ramki: Well solved as always.

@vasant: You know so many languages, that's awesome!
saher = dawn, what's the opposite?

Isn't yamak alankar about words with *different* (not necessarily *contradictory*) meanings?

Kishore said...

Shuchi, those sketches by her are wonderful! Thanks for sharing. My cartoons at THCC, though nowhere as good, were inspired by that day's clues in TH.

Lakshmi Vaidyanathan (LV) said...

Penalty for parking? That's perfect! (4) FINE

raju umamaheswar said...

Does this qualify to be a contronym?

The least and the most--the whole company indeed ! (3,3,3)


Sowmya said...

Here you go Shuchi


Kishore said...

i was fighting with him. Was I his opponent or ally?

Shuchi said...

@Sowmya: LV has already told me the answer, so will wait for someone else to solve it :-)

@Kishore: 'fighting with' - fine! terrific!

Shuchi said...

I had a contronym-related experience recently at the workplace. On a project, based on some risk calculations, a "Sanction-Flag" had to be set. I thought that if the input was low-risk, it would be sanctioned i.e. authorised. Turned out that sanctioned for the caller meant NOT authorised.

Kishore said...

An American sanction usually restricts, whereas a British one empowers! Do they speak the same language? ;-)

Kishore said...

Ze oracle never lies ... It speaks in words of double meaning ... The auditor interprets to his/her perspective ...

vasant said...

Yeah. Have been learning languages iin the states I worked. Regretably I didnt learn Kashmiri when I was in J&K in my last assignment.

michael said...

OK, I'm not sure if my previous comment came through. So I'm re-posting. Qwantz is a cool webcomic and it's awesome you read it, Shuchi.
Have you heard of antimetabole? It's where some elements in the first part get reversed in the second. Eg, "Eat to live—don't live to eat." -Socrates
I devised a phonetic antimetabole about a music student with little success in vocals:
"I've just inquired [spelled "enquired" outside the US] about Band; I'm just about banned in Choir."

Ganesh said...

SOLVENT (one that has money to pay; solid, and liquid in which a solute is dissolved)

Ganesh said...

Nice article on contronyms!
- Loks Subrahmanyam