What Does "Literally" Mean, Anyway? Contronyms Explained

Thursday, September 53 min read

Contronyms are an oddity of the English language — they’re a category of words and expressions that, depending on the context, can have multiple, opposite meanings, even when they come from the same roots. They’re also sometimes referred to as “autoantonyms.” When utilizing the following words, pay close attention to the context to make sure you’re using the correct definition.


An “apology” can be “a regretful acknowledgement of an offense or failure,” in the sense that an apology is given to someone who is wronged or harmed. However, it can also be “a reasoned argument or writing in justification of something” — for example, someone might refer to themselves as an “apologist,” meaning they support a certain stance or belief. The word’s roots are based in the latter meaning; it first appeared in the English language in the early 15th century, as “defense, justification,” from the Greek apologia, “a speech in defense.” However, etymologists say the connotation of regret might come from the original English sense of “self-justification,” yielding a meaning of “frank expression of regret for wrong done,” which was first recorded in the 1590s.


As a verb, “to bolt” can mean “to fasten something,” usually with “a bar that slides into a socket.” However, it can also mean “to run away suddenly out of control,” usually referring to an animal, but also to a frightened human being. The root of the word itself comes from Old English, meaning “a short, stout arrow with a heavy head.” It seems these contronymic meanings originated simultaneously — the word was applied to all sorts of metal rods for fastening things together since Middle English (c. 1400), but also referred to a crossbow arrow’s quick flight at the same time.


“To consult” can mean to give advice, or to ask for it. The second definition came first, appearing in the 1520s as “ask advice of, seek the opinion of as a guide to one’s own judgment,” from the Latin consultare, “consult, take the advice of.” The first definition was formed in the 17th century when the term “consultant,” or “a person who gives expert advice professionally,” came into use. It appeared in medicine first in 1872, as “a physician called in by the attending physician to give advice,” and more generally as “one qualified to give professional advice,” such as used by Arthur Conan Doyle to describe the fictional detective in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes in 1894.


“To dust” can mean to add fine particles, or to remove them. For example, someone with a bug problem might dust their home with diatomaceous earth, only to dust it off once the pests have gone away. “To sprinkle with dust” appeared in English in the 1590s, and “to rid of dust” appeared a few decades earlier in the 1560s.

First Degree

The use of “degree” to imply a notion of “one of a number of subdivisions of something extended in space or time,” meaning “intensive quality, measure, extent” appeared in English in the late 14th century. First degree, in reference to crimes, is the most severe, in the sense that it legally implies there was a plan to commit the crime. However, in reference to something like a burn, it’s the least severe. First-degree burns are called such because they only impact the outermost layer of the skin, while first-degree murder was defined in Hale’s Pleas of the Crown in 1736 as “first” being closest to the crime itself.


This is perhaps the most common modern contronym, and one of the most controversial. English language purists rely on the original meaning from the 1530s: “according to the exact meaning of the word or words used.” In that sense, it’s the literal meaning of the word. However, its usage as “virtually” is older than these sticklers might think — it’s been used in metaphors and hyperbole since the late 17th century.

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