Most of us have experienced the rewards and challenges of learning a second language. To hasten the learning, we take courses, watch movies in the new language, and engage native speakers when possible. Both consciously and subconsciously these exercises expand our comprehension and confidence with our developing language. But even advanced learners from time to time consult a dictionary when looking for something obscure, something that never appeared in the vocabulary lists they mastered. How does one ask for bulletin board push pins, for example, in Spanish, or curved embroidery needles? But by and large we can get along nicely with the vocabulary learned in beginning and intermediate Spanish.
Would those learning English as a second language say the same thing? English is fraught with as many exceptions as rules. Proper pronunciation for many English learners is reduced to throwing something against the wall and seeing what sticks. But the real head-scratchers are Janus words. Say what? You will recall from your Roman mythology that Janus was a two-headed god who is depicted with his two heads facing opposite directions. Hence, two-faced words. Officially called contronyms, contranyms, autantonyms, or auto-antonyms, they are words that have opposite and contradictory meanings. We know and understand which definition is being conveyed largely due to context. But imagine for a moment an English learner being told that finished means both completed (I’ve finished my homework) and destroyed (The scandal finished his career), that out means both visible (the stars are out) and invisible (the lights are out).
Here are some of the most common contranyms that native English speakers use and understand without batting an eye:
Enjoin. To order someone to do something: We were enjoined to secrecy, OR to prohibit someone from doing something: We were enjoined from taking photos.
Off. Not operating: Turn off the light, OR operating: The alarm went off.
Trim. To add something: It’s time to trim the tree, OR to take something away: He should trim his beard.
Bound. Going toward a destination: She’s bound for Glory, OR being restrained from moving: The prisoner was bound to the chair.
Dust. To cover with a fine powder: She dusted the cupcakes with powdered sugar, OR to remove fine powder: The furniture needs to be dusted.
Bolt. To separate: He bolted from the crowd, OR to hold together: The table was bolted to the floor.
Cleave. To adhere firmly and closely: “. . . a man shall cleave unto his wife.” (Genesis 2:24) OR to split apart: The axe easily cleaved through the wood.
Fast. Firmly fixed and unmoving: The boards held fast after being glued together, OR to move rapidly: The robbers made a fast getaway.
Oversight. Watchful, responsible care: Oversight of the university fell to its president, OR a mistake resulting from carelessness: The bookkeeping oversight cost the company thousands of dollars.
Screen. To hide: The trees screened the cabin from view, OR to show: The movie will be screened this afternoon.
Sanction. To boycott: The sanctions against Russian goods were swift and severe, OR to approve: The imposition of a fine was sanctioned by the judge.
Wear. To endure: The classics wear well, OR to deteriorate: The soles of his shoes had begun to wear.
Seed. To remove seeds: Seed the watermelon before serving, OR to add seeds: He seeded the lawn.
Garnish. To add decorative touches: The pasta was garnished with parsley, OR to remove or withhold: His wages were garnished to pay his child support.
Left. To depart: Elvis has left the building, OR to remain behind: There were three seats left.
Custom. A common practice: It is the custom in New Orleans to celebrate Mardi Gras, OR a specially made item: She employs custom tailors.
Handicap. An advantage given to equalize chances of winning: The golf pro gave the student a several-stroke handicap, OR a disadvantage that makes equality difficult: The jockey’s extra pounds were a distinct handicap.
Peruse. To skim: He hastily perused the contract, OR to read very carefully: She perused the will with great care.
Strike. To hit: Tiger strikes the ball with his perfect swing, OR to miss while trying to hit: The mighty Casey has struck out.
Now that we’ve examined two-headed words, here are a few two-headed headlines:
GRANDMOTHER OF EIGHT MAKES HOLE IN ONE
DRUNK GETS NINE MONTHS IN VIOLIN CASE
IKE SAYS NIXON CAN’T STAND PAT
TRAFFIC DEAD RISE SLOWLY
TUNA BITING OFF WASHINGTON COAST
NEW HOUSING FOR ELDERLY NOT YET DEAD
COUNTY OFFICIALS TO TALK RUBBISH
CARIBBEAN ISLANDS DRIFT TO LEFT
THUGS EAT THEN ROB PROPRIETOR
US FOOD SERVICE FEEDS THOUSANDS, GROSSES MILLIONS
IRAQUI HEAD SEEKS ARMS
NEW AUTOS TO HIT 5 MILLION
COMPLAINTS ABOUT NBA REFEREES GROWING UGLY
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