Contronyms: Words That Are Their Own Opposites

girl smelling a flower
Dennis Wong/Creative Commons

Most words have more than one meaning, but it takes a special class of word — it's called a contronym in English and an autoantónimo (self-antonym) in Spanish — to have two meanings that are the opposite of each other.

The classic examples are the verb "to sanction" and its Spanish cognate, sancionar. Sanctioning can be a desirable thing when it means to give approval, but it can be something to avoid when it refers to punishing. Usually, context will tell you which meaning is intended.

Contronyms sometimes go by other names such as Janus words, contranyms and auto-antonyms, and contrónimos or antagónimos in Spanish. Here are some of the most common contronyms in Spanish:


The core meaning of alquilar is to engage in a rental or lease transaction. It can mean either to rent to or to rent from.

  • Alquilé un coche para mi vacación en México. (I rented a car for my vacation in Mexico.)
  • Voy a alquilar mi casa a cuatro estudiantes de la universidad. (I'm going to lease my house to four students from the university.)


Arrendar is usually synonymous with alquilar but is less common.

  • Tengo el derecho de arrendar la tierra de mi madre. (I have the right to lease my mother's land.)
  • Se dice que es mejor arrendar a los extranjeros porque son muy puntuales en pagar. (They say it's better to rent to foreigners because they are very punctual in paying.)


As its core, huésped (the word can be either masculine or feminine) refers to someone involved with lodging. Thus it can refer to either a guest or a host, the latter meaning being considerably less common and old-fashioned. These days, huésped refers to a host most often in a biological sense.

  • Permanecimos como sus huéspedes aquel fin de semana. We stayed as her guests that weekend.
  • Los parásitos pueden ser transmitidos de un huésped a otro a través del consumo de alimentos y de agua contaminados. Parasites can be transmitted from one host to another through the consumption of contaminated food and water.


"To ignore" means to know that something exists or occurs but to act otherwise. Ignorar can have that meaning, but it can also mean to not know that something exists or occurs, just as "to be ignorant" does.

  • Muchas personas ignoran las señales de problemas cardiacos. (Many people ignore the signs of heart problems.)
  • Es posible que Peter ignore tu nombre. (It's possible that Peter is unaware of your name.)


As a noun, a limosnero is often a social worker, a generous person or someone who provides charity to someone. However, it can also refer to a beggar or someone who is a recipient of charity.

  • El limosnero papal dijo que necesitamos buscar a los pobres para ayudarlos. (The papal almsgiver said we need to seek out the poor in order to help them.)
  • Un limosnero murió mientras descansaba en un banco del parque. (A beggar died while he was sleeping on a park bench.)


Lívido is used when talking about the color of someone who is pale or pallid, and it can also be used when referring to skin or a body part that has become bruised or black-and-blue.

  • Se tornó lívida como un fantasma. (She became as pale as a ghost.)
  • Mi amigo tenía las piernas lívidas después del accidente. (My friend had bruised legs after the accident.)


Like "to smell," oler can mean either to emit an odor or to perceive an odor.

  • El espray procedente de la mofeta huele horriblemente mal. (Spray coming from a skunk smells horribly bad.)
  • Por alguna causa no puedo oler o respirar bien. (For some reason I can't smell or breathe well.)


In Latin, the verb from which sancionar came from often referred to a decree or legal ruling. As such legal actions can be either positive or negative, sancionar came to apply to official actions that either approve or disapprove an action of some kind. As in English, the noun form, la sanción (sanction), can have similarly opposite meanings.

  • El Congreso sancionó la nueva ley de energías renovables. (The Congress approved the law on renewable energy sources.)
  • La maestra me sancionó por mi mala conducta. (The teacher punished me for my bad behavior.)
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Erichsen, Gerald. "Contronyms: Words That Are Their Own Opposites." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Erichsen, Gerald. (2020, August 27). Contronyms: Words That Are Their Own Opposites. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Contronyms: Words That Are Their Own Opposites." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).