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I’m using auto-antonym to designate words that have two opposite (or nearly opposite) meanings.

The best example I know of an auto-antonym in German is the verb anhalten, which can mean both to stop and to continue.

Such words can be particularly bewildering to someone learning the language. It would therefore be useful to round them up, and mark them for special consideration as problematic.

If such a list already exists, a link to it would be greatly appreciated.

If not, let’s make one here.


Here are some examples of (near) auto-antonyms in English:

  • the verb sanction means approve of, but the noun sanction refers to a form of punishment;
  • oversight can mean supervision (as in to watch over), but an oversight is a failure to see something;
  • to cleave means to split, divide, but to cleave to means to adhere to, keep close to;
  • on reflection or upon reflection describes an action carried out after sustained deliberation, whereas on reflex describes exactly the opposite: an act carried out instinctively, and without any conscious thought; (this one is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, even if reflection and reflex are two variants of the same original reflexio)
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Not too surprisingly, there is an English Wikipedia article on Auto-antonym. On the left side it has a link to the corresponding German article, which is at Januswort. It has a list of 17 such German words and comments that words of this type are somewhat rarer in German than in English.

  • Well, all of this is surprising to me, quite obviously... In particular, I never even heard the word "auto-antonym" before. I used it in this post thinking it was a nonce coinage, in the spirit of "for-lack-of-a-better-word". But thanks. – kjo Oct 24 '15 at 21:38

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