Thursday, December 29, 2016


The last etymology post of the year! So of course I have to do something different. Today I’m going to highlight contranyms, words that mean both one thing and the complete opposite, because the one thing that you should be learning from these posts is that words are stupid.

Peruse means to read with thoroughness or care, like you would an article a medical journal that you were doing a paper on. It also means to scan or browse, like you would a tabloid while waiting in line at the grocery store. So it’s read carefully and glance at. So are you perusing this list or perusing it?

Yes, dust does have two contradictory meanings. Think about it: you can dust donuts with powdered sugar. And then when you spill it on the table, you can dust up the sugar. You can dust the dust.

This one is kind of funny because it’s only recently that the word has come to mean the opposite. Originally, nonplussed meant to surprise/confuse someone so much they don’t know how to react. However over the past couple of decades in North America, it’s come to mean to not be disturbed by something at all (I grew up thinking that was what it meant because I never heard it in any other context). I guess we’re seeing a word become a contranym right before our eyes, and we still have no idea why.

These days egregious means  extraordinarily bad, like Manos: The Hands of Fate is considered an egregious example of cinema. But! Once upon a time, it used to mean distinguished or outstanding, except people started using it ironically. So whatever you had to say about the change in definitions of nonplussed, people were probably saying it about egregious, and now everyone only uses it that way.

I had never even heard of chuffed before making this list, but it is indeed a contranym as it means both pleased and displeased. This one is all British, with the good chuffed coming from a word that meant “swollen with fat” and the bad one coming from a word that was “rude man”. And both of those words were “chuff”, so they were the same even back then and no one knows where they came from before that.


  1. I can't recall hearing of chuffed before either!

  2. I think the whole nonplussed thing happened because people didn't know what it meant.

  3. Nonplussed makes sense to me: Both have to do with an imperceptible reaction to a catalyst. From the outside, you can't tell which thing is happening.


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