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).

1 Answer 1


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)

  • 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, 2021 at 2:44
  • 1
    good suggestions, all added
    – Tang Ho
    Aug 3, 2021 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, 2021 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, 2021 at 11:56
  • 恨 In Cantonese can mean 'hate' or 'desperately want ' e.g. 恨錢, 恨嫁
    – Tang Ho
    Aug 3, 2021 at 21:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.