Its Own Opposite

Contranyms (or ‘contronyms’), also called Janus words, are their own antonyms.  This means the word has multiple definitions and at least two of them are opposites.  For example, oversight (n) could mean “careful supervision”, or it could mean “careless lack of attention”.  An error might have been due to an oversight, but it could’ve been prevented with (a different kind of) oversight.  Some contranyms might’ve come about because the original word was used ironically so often that the ironic definition became as popular (if not more so) than the original definition.  For other contranyms, we’re not sure why they have contrasting meanings.  English is a peculiar language.

For this project, students will express the definitions and give examples of three contranyms each.


Assigning Contranyms

Assign each of your students three contranyms.  You can do this any way you like, but here’s what we suggest:  Write out each of the contranyms you’d like to include on a notecard.  Make at least three times as many notecards as you have students, which means you may need to duplicate some words, perhaps more than once.  During class, randomly pass out three cards to each students.  Any students who have duplicates should swap a card with one of your leftovers.

Here’s a list of contranyms you can include (though you are welcome to add any others you think of):

  • apologetic
  • before
  • bolt
  • cleave
  • clip
  • commencement
  • consult
  • custom
  • downhill
  • execute
  • fast
  • hack
  • lease / rent
  • left
  • original
  • overlook / oversight
  • overpowered
  • pitch
  • priceless
  • put out
  • reservation
  • shelled
  • suspicious
  • temper
  • terrible
  • trim
  • weathered


Definitions & Descriptions

First, students need to look up the definitions of their contranyms.  If there are more than two definitions, each student will need to select two that contradict one another.  They’ll then need to write those two definitions down on their paper.  Keep in mind that the two definitions they’ll need may or may not be the same part of speech.

Second, students need to write a paragraph explaining how the two definitions are opposites (or at least, don’t agree with one another).  For some contranyms, this explanation should be obvious.  For others, though, it might be hard to put into words; the students might need some assistance from the teacher here.

Third, students should write down an example sentence for each definition.  The two examples should have a related context; the more that the other elements of the sentence or the situation it describes are the same, the more apparent their differences will be (in other words, this will help the contrast to stand out).  Ambitious students may try to fit both definitions into the same sentence.

Students need to do all three steps for all three of their contranyms.



Once students have finished, you should have a few of them select one of their contranyms and describe it to the class.  Each time, ask other students who had that same word whether they had a different interpretation.  After a few rounds of sharing, collect all their papers.

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