Can a word mean its own opposite?

Some words can change in meaning so subtly that we don’t even notice. To show you what I mean, let me tell you a story.

A few years ago I was at the wedding of a dear friend and colleague, who also happens to study language for a living, and there were a few other linguists there. We all were seated at one end of one table—perhaps so that we wouldn’t bother the other guests!

Of course, we started talking about language. One guest, who is a professional lexicographer (an editor of dictionaries), said, “I’m going to give you a sentence and I want you to tell me if you hear anything odd about it. Don’t think too hard—just tell me whether you hear any problems on first hearing the sentence.” So we all got ready for the sentence, and it went something like this:

“Mary and her partner just moved in upstairs from us and their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.”

We all listened to the sentence. Then we listened to it again. Some people were trying to figure out if there was something wrong with lay/lie, but that’s the red herring. In the end, we all said, “Sounds fine.” Now I don’t know if you thought it sounded fine, but the question I’ll ask you is this: Is Mary and her partner’s stuff still in the boxes or not?

In my head, the stuff is still in the boxes. However, if we think about the sentence, the boxes are “still unpacked,” which should mean the stuff is out of the boxes. So in this sentence, if you also are visualizing boxes full of stuff, the word unpacked actually means packed. Or it means un-unpacked.

Some people will say this is impossible. A word cannot mean its opposite. Well, it’s not impossible.

In fact, we have instances in English of other words that mean their opposite. We don’t have a lot of them, but we do have them.

Let’s consider the word dust. Dust can mean to remove the dust from something or to put the dust onto something (e.g., you can “dust a cake” with sugar). The word sanction is ambiguous because it can mean to give permission to do something or it can mean to penalize for doing something. The verb cleave can mean to cling to (e.g., “she cleaved to her beliefs”) or to split apart (hence, a cleaver, a cleft chin, and a cloven hoof).

For each one of those words, there’s a different story for how the word has come to mean its opposite. For example, cleave represents the merger of two distinct Old English verbs that meant opposite things. And while it can seem confusing in the abstract, we as speakers seem to be able to use context for at least some ambiguous words to determine what they mean in a given sentence, often without even realizing the ambiguity.

I don’t know what will happen with unpacked and whether it will continue to mean un-unpacked for generations to come. But I do know that it’s not impossible for unpacked to mean both unpacked and un-unpacked. And I will forever be confused by what bimonthly means, as to whether I am going to the meeting twice a month or every other month—and I will always have to ask.

This video originally appeared in LSA Today, where you can find more videos, including an archive of Anne Curzan’s discussions of language.


  1. Robert Beard - 1966

    I meant, of course, contranyms:


  2. Robert Beard - 1966

    Are you really unaware of oxymorons? See for a sampling.


  3. Jeff Mc Kinney - 1984

    I have always liked re-signed, as in: The player resigned her/his position. Did she/he stay or did she/he go?


  4. David Gottfried - 1984

    I really enjoyed this bit of word play. I have also been fascinated by homophones that are opposites, such as raise (to increase) and raze (to tear down).


  5. Donna Kelly - 1971

    Might eating a “pitted olive” crack a tooth?


  6. Martin Werner - 1985

    I accept the three other examples given in the video of words which can have two opposite meanings. The sentence, “The boxes lay on the floor, still unpacked”, does not belong to this category. Rather, it combines words in a construct that fails to make any sense. The apparent ambiguity of meaning is a bi-product, resulting from the primary misconstruction.
    There actually is only one possible interpretation to the sentence as it is, namely that the boxes have never been packed, they have always remained empty. This, of course, is not logical since Mary and her partner have just completed their move.
    It would be easy to describe the scenario unequivocally (one way or the other) by using one of the following constructs: “The boxes lay on the floor, still packed”- they are still full. Or, conversely, “The boxes lay on the floor, already unpacked” – they are now empty.


  7. Eve Trager - 1988

    How about raveled and unraveled?


  8. Alex Inman - 2007

    I believe the logic here is that when you pack a box it is no longer just a box. Once it is filled, the contents become become part of the container. In essence, it transforms from “a box that is filled with items” into a “packed box”.
    For absolute clarity, I agree with Martin, that “The boxes lay on the floor, still packed” is the correct way to word this sentence.
    However, things change if you add the transportation element to the logic that a “box” becomes a “packed box” once filled. What is a “packed box” once it has been shipped and is waiting to be unpacked? I think that once it has arrived its status is updated again, and now it is an “unpacked box”.
    If nothing else, the sentence in question contextually implies that the boxes are filled with items for 2 (or more) reasons:
    1) They just moved in. Aside from the devil’s advocate, who moves empty boxes when they move only to leave them on the kitchen floor?
    2) The boxes were “still” unpacked. This implies they have yet to be unpacked at this new location.
    The same concept applies to a suitcase or luggage. A suitcase is a container for traveling – but is the suitcase empty or full? Take this sentence, “I am going to Las Vegas for the weekend and will bring my new suitcase.”
    Context (from experience) will tell you that I will pack my suitcase prior to leaving. But, since Las Vegas is full of shopping opportunities I may bring an empty suitcase that can be loaded up with souvenirs. The act of “bringing” a suitcase does not explicitly state that it is packed.
    Thanks for the noodle-scratcher!


  9. William Bromley - 1959

    Could it be full of emptyness?


  10. Connie Kelly - 1965

    Thank heavens I’m not alone on that bimonthly confusion!


  11. Merideth Garcia - 2017



  12. Orval Wolfgram - 1963

    To me, the antecedent “still” somewhat clarifies the possible confusion. It (still) allows the speaker to omit the word “not” prior to the word “not unpacked”, as we similarly omit words in other applications. An example would be the omission of “you” at the beginning of a sentence, since is is understood to be there.


  13. Joel Pitcoff - 1967 MBA

    I pretty much share the view that, within the context of the story, the sentence didn’t make much sense and certainly was quite ambiguous. I disagree, however, with the conclusion that a maximum of two potential constructs exist. If the referenced boxes were shipping containers, it’s tempting to assume simplistically that their contents must have been either (1) still not unpacked or (2) still packed, but inconceivably were (3) still unpacked.
    At first blush, unpacked means either empty or not yet loaded into/on the vehicle that was to transport them (i.e., inside of it, towed behind it or strapped to the vehicle’s exterior). But here’s another possibility: suppose they were not necessarily large cartons, as one is prone to conceptualize in connection with a relocation. They could be cereal boxes or ammunition boxes, pill boxes or music boxes, cake boxes or jack-in-the-boxes, tool boxes or jewelry boxes, cigar boxes or whatever. Perhaps they were removed from the vehicle, but still unpacked in the sense that they hadn’t been put away yet where they belong.
    So in the final analysis, one thing known for certain is that the sentence is simply too vague for us to be positive regarding its intended meaning. We can conjecture, but there’s insufficient information.
    Finally, don’t dismiss the notion that some boxes may have arrived empty. In this day and age, moving sometimes is a bit like an old-fashioned barn raising, only less well-organized. Friends, neighbors, family, co-workers, etc. with widely divergent skill sets
    — all might join in the effort. Folks show up driving a disparate range of cars and trucks, then load stuff into their own or someone else’s vehicles. Often participants have negligible experience, instruction, supervision, knowledge of (or even curiosity about) the containers’ contents. Under such circumstances, anything can happen.


  14. Jill Stallman - 1991

    I get confused when people say a meeting is scheduled ‘next Tuesday’. I always have to clarify if that means this coming Tuesday or ‘not this one but the next Tuesday’. I think people use it to mean this next one coming up but to me why wouldn’t they just say ‘this Tuesday’ in that context?


  15. Sneha Madhavan-Reese - 2002

    And do shelled walnuts have their shells on or off?


  16. Julia M - 2001

    There’s also “nonplussed,” which has acquired a meaning opposite its original meaning. This is, apparently, a result of parsing by English speakers.


  17. Roger Williams - 1985

    barn (as in, can’t hit the broad side of…a very large measure)
    barn (from memory) in physics: 10^-24 centimeter square, or a very small unit of measure.
    One which should be near and dear to Michigan alums/students: Madonna (that is her name, but not necessarily what she is…in the other sense of that word…the un-virgin).


  18. Holly Finstrom - not

    I like how “peeled” and “unpeeled” mean the same thing, sort of!


  19. Chris Lumpkin

    I disagree that the statement, “I think that once it has arrived its status is updated again, and now it is an “unpacked box”.
    An unpacked box, taken in its simplistic form without contextual modification, is an empty box. A packed box is a full box. Just because a packed box arrived at its destination does not automatically make it an unpacked box.
    At least the verb form is much easier to wrap one’s thoughts around. Packing a box means putting things into it. Unpacking a box means taking things out.
    And bi-monthly is universally misconstrued.


  20. John Hall

    The meaning can also rest on the meaning of still. If we take it to mean at rest or not moving, then to my mind the boxes are empty. But, if still means yet, the boxes are full. I don’t think most people would need to stipulate that the boxes are at rest, but in the interest of word play…


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