Tuesday, April 3, 2018


A contronym is a word that, depending on context, can have two opposite or contradictory meanings. Here's a straight-forward list with 75 examples, and here's a Mental Floss article discussing 25 interesting contronyms. (The first page of the article has a picture of a coffee cup. I'm sure it's a pleasant read. Go ahead, work can wait.)

I might quibble with some of the marginal examples on the list of contronyms, where the alternative connotation seems trivial. A true contronym should be an exercise in dynamic tension:  two perfectly balanced definitions, neither of which can claim the sole title of being the primary impression our brain associates with the word.

My favorite contronym is cleave. This old-fashioned word evokes vivid but conflicting biblical imagery. After creating Eve, God tells Adam “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.” Conversely, later in the Old Testament, Jehovah demonstrates Zeus- or Thor-calibre smiting abilities, cleaving various bad folks in twain. 

Sanction is my other go-to example of a contronym. I'm a lawyer. The law is one big story about the Man who giveth and who taketh away. 

I just noticed scalable is a contronym.  

"Scalable" is a trendy buzzard in the business and policy world. Scalable means "able to be increased in size." For example, licensing software is a highly scalable business. Microsoft can add a million Word users overnight without any additional development costs.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, says he got the best of advice of his life from a second-year business student at Wharton: choose a "profession that is 'scalable.'" Taleb points to the scalability difference between J.K. Rowling and a neighborhood baker. Unlike the baker and his delicious loaves of bread, the wealthy author "does not have to write each book again every time someone wants to read it." 

The second definition of "scalable" is "able to be scaled or climbed." Mount Baker is scalable. Our nearby volcano is not so tall it cannot be climbed. 

In theory, Mount Baker is also scalable in the alternative sense of being "able to be increased in size." But after a few million years, plate tectonics might eventually reach a point where the peak could no longer be climbed by intrepid Gortex-clad mountaineers. [Ed. Note: for any creationists out there, can an all-powerful God make a mountain so tall He can't climb it?]

Apparently, Mount Baker is scalable but not scalable. 

 "A man's reach should exceed his grasp." - Robert Browning

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