The most confusing words in the English language

Good communication is succinct and explicit. It uses plain vocabulary in simple sentences, with no margin for misunderstanding. The quickest way to undermine it is with the deployment of one of an elite squad of words with the same destructive impact as a runaway bumper car in a hall of mirrors. These are auto-antonyms: words with two opposite meanings. If your intention is to confuse your audience, any of the following should serve your purpose:

apparent: obvious / not actual
bolt: to secure / to flee
bound: tied / to leap
cleave: to join / to divide
draw: (curtains) open / close
fast: fixed in position / moving quickly
give out: to produce / to stop producing
hold up: to support / to obstruct
impregnable: impossible to enter / able to be entered
lease: to lend / to borrow
left: departed / remaining
overlook: to monitor / to fail to notice
oversight: supervision / omission
peer: an equal / a nobleman
qualified: limited / skilful
refrain: inaction / repeated action
rent: to lend / to borrow
reservation: a confirmation / a doubt
resign: to quit / to sign up again
sanction: to endorse / to forbid (a penalty or a reward)
screen: to show / to hide
seed: to remove seeds / to add seeds
skin: to cover with skin / to remove the skin
splice: to join / to split in two
temper: to soften / to strengthen
weather: to endure / to erode
yield: to give a return / to give up

My sons might suggest I add ‘wicked’ and ‘sick’, to which I say: “Yeah, right.”

Cryptic crossword compilers deliberately mislead solvers, so this arsenal of ambiguity is a rich source of deception for them. They also use ‘without’ to mean either excluding  or including (i.e. surrounding).

When a court of law endorses my driving license, I don’t think it signifies their approval, so maybe this should also be promoted to my list.

Auto-antonyms need be used only sparingly due to their high potential for confusion. If our politicians did not already shamelessly contradict themselves, I would suggest the inclusion of an auto-antonym in every speech, giving them the option of later claiming their meaning to be the opposite of the original one.

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2 Responses to The most confusing words in the English language

  1. I have an, uhm, issue. “To rent” is not a transitive verb, although it is (mis)used as one. The transitive verb in the context is “let”.

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