Don't Overlook The Duality in Contronyms.

Published on July 5, 2024

Credit: Glen Carrie

The English language is a fascinating tapestry woven with countless quirks and nuances. Among its many delights are contronyms, words that have two contradictory meanings.

These linguistic anomalies add a delightful twist to communication, and they often require context to avoid misunderstandings. Read on as we go through a list of contronyms, explore their duality, and uncover their origins.


Cleave: to split or to join?

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Let’s kick off this list with a word that evokes images of both separation and unity at the same time. On one hand, it can mean to adhere firmly to something, as in "to cleave to tradition."

In the context of adherence, it is all about sticking together like peanut butter and jelly.

But here is the twist, this word can also mean to split apart , as in "to cleave through the dense underwood." A lumberjack wielding an axe is ready to "cleave through a mighty oak."

How did this linguistic paradox come to be? Well, "cleave" originates from two separate Old English words, " cleofian " meaning "to adhere" and " cleofan " meaning "to split." Over time, these two divergent meanings merged into one delightful linguistic enigma.


Sanction: approval or punishment?

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Now, here’s a word that will keep you on your toes. Depending on the context, it can either mean to approve or to penalize . How’s that for a linguistic rollercoaster?

Originating from the Latin word " sanction ," meaning "law" or "decree," sanction has managed to maintain its dual personality throughout its journey into the English language. When used for approval, "sanction" is like a stamp of authority, giving the green light to proceed . For example, "The committee voted to sanction the new project, signaling their full support."

However, it can morph into its alter ego, meaning punishment or penalty . For example, you might say, "The regulatory body decided to sanction the company for violating environmental regulations."


Dust: to clean or to sprinkle?

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Prepare to have your cleaning routine turned upside down with the contradictory nature of "dust." This deceptive little word can mean both to remove dust and to sprinkle with fine particles . It’s like a linguistic magic trick, leaving you wondering which way is up.

In the context of cleaning, "dust" means to rid surfaces of pesky particles that accumulate over time. You might say, "I need to dust the shelves before guests arrive for dinner."

But hold on to your feather dusters, because this word can also mean to sprinkle with fine particles and, in that context, you might find yourself saying, " The baker carefully dusted the freshly baked pastries with cocoa powder."


Bolt: to secure or to fleet?

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If you thought bolts were just for locking doors, think again. "Bolt" is another word that defies expectations meaning both to secure tightly and to make a swift gateway. It’s like having a trusty tool and a daring escape plan all rolled into one.

In the context of securing, "bolt" is all about fastening something firmly in place . In this case, an example would be, "Be sure to bolt the gate shut to keep the livestock from wandering off."

But don’t get too comfortable because "bolt" also means to dash away at lightning speed, leaving others in the dust. You might use it in a sentence like, "When the alarm sounded, the thief made a desperate attempt to bolt from the scene."


Seed: to plant or to remove?

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In the world of gardening, the word "seed" is a vital component of growth. But did you know it can also mean the opposite? That’s right, "seed" can both mean to sow seeds for planting and to remove seeds from fruits or vegetables . It’s like playing chef and gardener at the same time!

When used in the context of planting, "seed" is all about laying the groundwork for future growth. An example of this meaning could be: " It’s time to seed the garden with tomatoes and cucumbers for a summer full of fresh produce."

At the same time, "seed" can also mean to remove seeds, like when preparing a delicious meal. In a sentence, it could go: "After slicing the peppers, be sure to seed them to reduce the heat."


Trim: to add or to subtract?

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When it comes to giving something a makeover, the word "trim" seems straightforward enough. But in the world of contronyms, nothing is as it seems. "Trim" can mean both adding decorative elements and removing excess material . It’s like being both an interior designer and a tailor, all in one fell swoop.

In the context of adding, "trim" means embellishing or decorating something to enhance its appearance. You can "add a lace trim to a dress" or "adorn a tree with colorful trimmings."

On the other hand, "trim" can also mean removing excess material or parts of something to improve efficiency or aesthetics. You can "trim back overgrown bushes," or "trim any excess of fat from the meat."


Screen: to show or to hide?

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When you think of a screen, you might envision a movie theater or a computer monitor. But did you know that "screen" can also mean both to display and to conceal ?

According to the first definition, "screen" is to showcase or present something for everyone to see. For example, " The art gallery screened a documentary highlighting the artist’s creative process."

As for the second definition, "screen" also refers to shielding or hiding from view. In this case, you can use it in a sentence like, " The curtains were drawn to screen the room from the harsh afternoon sun."


Overlook: to surprise or to neglect?

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In the world of business, you have probably overlooked a project. But you have probably overlooked a detail that unleashed hell too, isn’t that so? "Overlook" is a fascinating contronym as it can mean both to supervise and to neglect.

In the context of supervising, "overlook" is a synonym for "monitoring", that is, it means to watch something over with care and attention. For example, "As the project manager, it’s my job to overlook the progress of the team."

However, it can also be a synonym for failing to pay attention, quite ironic, isn’t it? In this context, overlooking something might end in unintended consequences, like, "Don’t overlook the details, or you might miss an important opportunity."


Weather: to withstand or to wear away?

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In the natural world, "weather" stands as a true anomaly. It’s a word that plays with our perceptions, veering between resilience and erosion. Like a cliff facing the relentless pounding of waves, "weather" embodies both strength and vulnerability.

When the tempests rage and the skies darken, "weather" becomes a symbol of resilience. In the face of adversity, we say a person or thing can "weather the storm," emerging stronger on the other side.

Yet, there’s another facet to this polysemic word. "Weather" can also mean the slow erosion of time’s touch. In this sense, to "weather" is to bear witness to the ceaseless march of time, where even the mightiest structures yield to its embrace.


Left: remaining or departed?

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In the dance of presence and absence, the word "left" takes center stage, twirling between what remains and what has departed . It’s like having one foot in the past and one foot in the present, never quite sure where you stand.

Amidst the flow of comings and goings, "left" refers to what remains or is still available after others have departed. You might say, "I’ll take the last slice of pizza since no one else is left to claim it."

However, "left" can also mean having departed or gone away, leaving behind an empty space or a sense of loss. You might use it in a sentence like, "She felt a pang of sadness as she realized her friends had all left the party without saying goodbye."


10 Unsung Scientists and Inventors Who Shaped History

Published on July 5, 2024

Credit: National Cancer Institute

History has a notoriously capricious memory. Casting a spotlight on a select few, it condemns others to oblivion, no matter how significant their contributions. However, it’s never too late to change this!

Let’s uncover some of the stories behind 10 forgotten figures of history that, in one way or another, helped shape our modern world.


Hedy Lamarr

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As if a glamorous Hollywood career was not enough, Hedy Lamarr was also a brilliant inventor who - among other things - developed a groundbreaking frequency-hopping system during World War II to secure both communications and radio-guided torpedoes. And besides helping Allied forces gain a technological advantage during the war, her innovative ideas also laid the foundation for modern Bluetooth and Wi-Fi technologies.


Émile Gagnan

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Émile Gagnan was a French engineer who partnered with famous diver Jacques Cousteau to create the Aqua-Lung , the first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus (or SCUBA). The device, which utilized compressed air to allow divers to explore underwater for extended periods, not only completely revolutionized underwater exploration but its relative ease of use also led to a boom in recreational diving.


Mary Leakey

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Mary Leakey was a pioneering figure in the field of paleoanthropology who made significant contributions to our understanding of human evolution. Alongside her husband Louis Leakey, she unearthed numerous hominid fossils in East Africa, including the famous discovery of the "Nutcracker Man," a skull of Paranthropus boisei, an extinct species of hominid that lived around 2.5 million years ago. Mary's meticulous excavation techniques and a keen eye for detail led to many more groundbreaking discoveries, such as the Laetoli footprints, providing crucial insights into early human locomotion.


Alice Ball

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Alice Ball was a true pioneer in all regards. The first woman and first African American to graduate with a Master’s degree from the University of Hawaiʻi, she developed the first effective treatment for leprosy, known as the "Ball Method." Her technique allowed to make chaulmoogra oil - an antimicrobial extract obtained from the seeds of Hydnocarpus wightianus - water-soluble and thus injectable. She died before publishing her work, which was then stolen by fellow chemist Arthur L. Dean. However, thanks to the insistence of her colleagues, she eventually received the rightful recognition for her groundbreaking contributions.


Emilie du Châtelet

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The outstanding work of the Marquise du Châtelet, also known as Emilie du Châtelet, significantly contributed to our understanding of energy conservation and the principles of calculus. Her 18th-century French translation of Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica helped disseminate Newton’s work in Europe, and she introduced a series of contributions to Newtonian mechanics, including the postulate of an additional conservation law for total energy and a scientific definition for the concept of energy.



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Considered by some to be the true "father of robotics" and modern-day engineering, Al-Jazari was a 12th-century polymath who revolutionized mechanical engineering with his ingenious designs, including the first recorded programmable humanoid robot. Among his many designs for automata were a waitress that could serve various drinks, an automaton that helped with hand washing, and a musical robot band.


Edmond Becquerel

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Edmond Becquerel's experiments in the 19th century paved the way for solar energy research. His discovery of the photovoltaic effect laid the groundwork for modern solar cell technology, and his research in the topics of optics and light also contributed to the development of photography. Curiously, he was the father of Nobel laureate Henri Becquerel, one of the discoverers of radioactivity.


Jethro Tull

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Not to be confused with the rock band of the same name, Jethro Tull was an English agriculturalist born in the 17th century who revolutionized farming practices with his innovative inventions. His most famous creation, the seed drill, transformed agriculture by allowing seeds to be planted in neat rows at consistent depths, vastly improving crop yields and efficiency. Tull's dedication to scientific farming methods laid the groundwork for modern agricultural techniques.


Ada Lovelace

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Often regarded as the world's first computer programmer, English mathematician Ada Lovelace made groundbreaking contributions to the early development of computing in the 19th century. Collaborating with Charles Babbage on his Analytical Engine, Lovelace is also notable for being the first to foresee potential in computing beyond mere calculation, as she reasoned that such an engine could easily work with entities other than just quantities, and could be applied to music, science, or have many other general uses.


Mary Anderson

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Next time you are driving in the rain, think of Mary Anderson. An American inventor and entrepreneur, Anderson left an enduring legacy on the automotive industry with her groundbreaking invention - the windshield wiper. In 1902, while visiting New York City, Anderson observed streetcar drivers struggling to maintain visibility in inclement weather. Thinking on this problem, she envisioned a solution: a moving wiper blade that could be operated from the inside. Despite initial skepticism, Anderson's invention soon became standard equipment for automobiles, improving road safety everywhere in the world.

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