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Some words in the English language are called 'contranyms', where depending on the context, the same word can have very opposite meanings.

For example:

  1. leave - to go away from a certain place, but can also mean, to remain or stay (so you can see these two 'opposite' meanings).

  2. sanction - to threaten some penalty, but can also mean, to give permission.

I was wondering if the Chinese language has examples of contranyms (you can perhaps include slang or modern usages).

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In ancient times, many characters contained two opposite meanings. Not so many in modern times.

off my head, all I can come up with are:

乖 - unreasonable (乖戾) / well-behaving (乖巧)

推 - push (推動) / reject (推拒)

落 - get in (落鄉) / get off (落車)

下 - engage (下海) / disengage (下岡)

痛 - pain (痛苦) / ecstatic (痛快)

回 - come back (客人問主人何時才回) / leave (主人問客人何時要回)

嚇 - to scare (嚇他一嚇) / be scared (嚇了一驚)

任 - appoint duty (任命)/ let free (任由)

氣 - to anger (氣他一氣) / be angry (氣他不守約)

前 - previous (前度女友) / future (前景不明朗)

借 - to borrow (借來)/ to lend (借出)

敗 - to defeat (敗敵) / to be defeated (敗陣)

退 - retreat (撤退) / expel (退敵)

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  • 1
    I'd also add (你能借我一点钱吗? [lend] vs. 你想借什么书? [borrow]) and (前天 vs. 前途), and maybe 生气 (他很生气 vs. 他很有生气).
    – Becky 李蓓
    Aug 3 at 2:44
  • 1
    good suggestions, all added
    – Tang Ho
    Aug 3 at 2:53
  • 1
    I find the lending/borrowing interesting. In my native Swedish, there's only one word, and I've never thought of the words in English to be opposites, just different angles on the same thing.
    – Olle Linge
    Aug 3 at 8:52
  • Buy and sell in mandarin are of different tones, so it is very easy to distinguish from each other. But in cantonese, this is another story, though totally different characters, i find distinguishing from buy and sell extremely difficult in cantonese
    – cgo
    Aug 3 at 11:56
  • 恨 In Cantonese can mean 'hate' or 'desperately want ' e.g. 恨錢, 恨嫁
    – Tang Ho
    Aug 3 at 21:04

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