Experimenting with Auto-antonyms and Generonyms

monstrosity_by_vihola-d38sq66Excuse me while I dust the cobwebs off my blog and straighten the furniture.

I know it’s been a while since I posted, and I have to confess that I’ve been so busy that all the creativity seeped out of my brain to take a nap on the floor under my desk. But Halloween is almost here, and I couldn’t let it slip by without paying homage to my favourite holiday.

So today, I want to tell you about two odd and quirky things in the English language: auto-antonyms and generonyms.

Auto-antonyms are one of those frustrating things for English language learners. They are words that have two or more accepted meanings that just happen to contradict each other. A good example is the verb buckle, which can mean to fasten or tighten something — but it can also mean to collapse due to external stress. Here are examples of both meanings:

  • Dr. Frankenstein made sure the monster’s restraints were buckled.
  • The steel table buckled under the monster’s weight.

My favourite auto-antonym is the word impregnable, which can mean something is impossible to enter — or able to be impregnated. Unfortunately, the second meaning has mostly fallen out of usage. Here are examples of both meanings anyway:

  • Thanks to a shark-infested moat and a lot of barbed wire, the doctor’s castle was impregnable.
  • Ms. Frankenstein stared at the test, delighted to discover she was impregnable after all.

Okay, so generonyms are trademarked words that become generic over time. One modern example is Google, which many of us now use as a verb to describe searching for something online. As a matter of fact, I googled generonyms earlier today. There are lots of other examples in English. See how many you can spot in the following sentence (hint: there are five):

  • Covered in granola crumbs, the monster played with a yo-yo on the escalator, unaware that his zipper was down and there was Kleenex stuck to his shoe.

Generonyms often give birth to neologisms, which are new words, or words that are given alternative meanings, that haven’t been formally accepted into the language. Some neologisms disappear, but others become so widely used that the eventually end up in the dictionary.

Image credit: Vihola @ deviantART

7 thoughts on “Experimenting with Auto-antonyms and Generonyms

  1. Great post, welcome back! The thing that bugs me with auto-antonyms is that you can’t always tell from the context which meaning is the one intended. A good example is “sanction.”

    I see your generonyms and raise you one: white-out. (Actually Wite-Out.) BTW, if you ever list those again, you should lower-case “Kleenex” because that was a giveaway. 😉

    Love, your fellow Grammar maven.

    1. Thanks Ellie! You’re right about auto-antonyms — and sanction is a great example. It’s difficult enough keeping them straight as a native English speaker. I can only imagine the confusion people learning English must experience.

      White-out is another good generonym! I thought about lower-casing Kleenex, but figured it was okay to give one away. After all, not everyone is a grammar maven. 😉

  2. My favourite Generonym is Tayto, from the ground-breaking brand of potato crisps (chips). Which has become a generic phrase for any type of savoury snack over here. Thanks for the lesson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s