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Episode 71: Contronyms in Spanish, What They Are and 7 Fun Examples!

Have you ever laughed at the fact that, in English, there are so many words that contradict themselves? For instance, if Paul rents a room, is he the one paying the landlord, or is he himself the landlord? Or how you can have clothes that will wear for a long time, but then eventually the wear on them begins to show? Or one of my current favorites, how you can be cheerfully sanguine (confidently optimistic) while your neighbor is a sanguine (bloodthirsty) lunatic? These types of words are called contronyms, and of course Spanish has them, too! So let's dive in, and afterwards we'll talk about the official holidays of Guatemala.


What are Contronyms?

Put simply, a contronym is a word that has two meanings that contradict each other. These types of words are also called antagonyms or autoantonyms (self-antonym, get it?). So you can have 5 grapes left, meaning there are 5 grapes remaining, but you also say that John left the building. In other words, left can mean to remain or it can mean to leave, two contradictory meanings. You can dust a cake with sprinkles, or you can dust your furniture. In one meaning, you're adding tiny particles to the cake. In the other, you're removing tiny particles from the furniture!

One of the great things about contronyms is that they show how context-based language is! After all, how often do you stop to think about the fact that a country's custom is practiced by thousands of people, but a custom order is made just for you? It hardly ever crosses your mind that words can be self-contradictory because you're focusing on the specific meaning they have based on the context of a conversation.

So let's have some fun today! Take a step back with me and contemplate the humorous side of language. Let's look at 7 great contronyms in Spanish! Or, as they would say, los autoantónimos or las enantiosemias.

7 Fantastic Spanish Contronyms

  1. Sancionar This word can mean to approve of something. Ex: The king sanctioned the duke's actions. El rey sancionó las acciones del duque. But it can also mean to punish someone for their actions. Just like in English with "sanction" - it has those two contradictory meanings. Ex: Europe has sanctioned Russia for its war in Ukraine. Europa ha sancionado a Rusia por su guerra en Ucrania.

  2. Aquilar This verb means to rent out a place or thing, like an apartment or special tool. Ex: Tony rented out his apartment. Tony alquiló su apartamento. The verb can also refer to someone doing the actual renting. Ex: Juan rented the chainsaw for the afternoon. Juan alquiló la motosierra por la tarde. In English, we also use the verb "rent" this way, although we differentiate between the landlord and the renter via the word "out" (e.g., I rented out the apartment vs. I rented the apartment). But Spanish doesn't have that distinction; you have to figure it out based on context. So what do you think? Does María quiere alquilar la casa mean that María wants to rent the house, or that she is looking for a renter for her house? :D

  3. Animal or Monstruo If you call someone un animal, you're probably saying it as an insult. It can be used to call someone a brute or a moron. And this is similar to the word monstruo. Just like in English, calling someone a monster is to say that they are a terrible human being. Ex: This idiot thinks that Ecuador is in Africa. Este animal piensa que Ecuador está en África. You're a monster! ¡Eres un monstruo! And yet, both of these words can also refer to someone who is really good at something, similar to how we use "machine" or "whiz" in English. Ex: That man is a digging machine! ¡Ese hombre es un animal excavando! My sister is a whiz at languages. Mi hermana es un monstruo de los idiomas. You can even use monstruo to say that something is fantastic! Ex: What a fantastic idea! ¡Qué idea monstruo! Do I understand any of these positive meanings? No, but they're fun examples for contronyms! Or should I say they are monstruos? :D

  4. Dar Clase This phrase can mean to give a class. Ex: Nancy gives pottery classes. Nancy da clases de alfarería. But it can also mean that you take a class. Weird, right? Ex: I took a class on herbology. Dé una clase de herbología. Again, you have to rely on context in order to understand if "Juan da clases de matemáticas" means Juan teaches math or if he's learning it.

  5. Friolera This is a really cool word. It can mean something that is a trifling. Ex: She paid a mere $5 for the scarf! ¡Costó la friolera de $5 por la bufanda! But it can also be used ironically to mean the opposite, that something is excessive or a huge quantity. Ex: She spent a "mere" $100 million for that property! ¡Ella gastó la friolera de $100 millones por esa propiedad! (This word is also one of my favorite new words, as friolero/a is the adjective you use to describe someone who is always cold. I now call my husband mi querido friolero. :D)

  6. Ignorar This is an interesting word, in that it means to ignore something and to be ignorant of something. So with one word you can either know something and intentionally ignore it or not know that it exists! Ex: Jake began ignoring Joe after their fight. Jake comenzó a ignorar a Joe después de su pelea. Ex: Jake didn't know Joe had actually saved him. Jake ignoró que Joe realmente lo había salvado.

  7. Batacazo This is another favorite word of mine. One of its meanings is the loud thunk, that blow to yourself when you fall hard. In that same vein, it can also reference a failure or sudden fall in a venture. Ex: She tripped and hit the ground with a thunk. Ella tropezó y se dio un batacazo contr a el suelo. But it can also mean, in Latin America, a surprising or lucky triumph. And in some countries, this sentiment is applied more specifically to horse racing. :D Ex: The golfer's unexpected victory shocked the industry. El batacazo que dio el golfista conmocionó a la industria.

Remember, learning a language is a lifelong journey.

¡Aprovéchalo, Disfrútalo y Compártelo!


Cultural Tip: Guatemala

Global National Holidays

Today's cultural tip highlights the national holidays of Guatemala! To save on time, and to avoid extreme repetitiveness, here is a quick list of holidays that many other countries also celebrate and/or which we have covered in other episodes, so I won't get into too much detail for these ones:

  • New Year's Day (01/01a)*

  • Holy Thursday (04/14) (It is always the Thursday before Easter)

  • Good Friday (04/15) (It is always the Friday before Easter, which was 04/17 this year)

  • Labour Day (05/01a, although it is May 2nd this year since the first is on a Sunday),

  • Assumption Day (08/15a), or Asunción de la Virgen (see Episode 67 for more information.)

  • All Saint's Day (11/01a), or Día de Todos los Santos, All Hallows' Day.

  • Christmas Eve (12/24a)

  • Christmas Day (12/25a)

*The "a" means that it is always celebrated on this day.

Unique National Holidays

I found these following three holidays are unique to Guatemala:

1. Día del Ejército de Guatemala, or Army Day (06/30a)

This day honors the military for their service to Guatemala, including a military parade. The day originally began as a celebration of the army's successful overthrow of the dictator, Vicente Cerna, during the Liberal Revolution that took place on June 30, 1871 in Guatemala City.

2. Día de la Independencia, or Independence Day (09/15a)

As we've talked about many times on this podcast, much of Latin America fought for independence from the Spanish. Central America (comprised of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize, Panama, and Costa Rica) officially declared their independence on September 15, 1821. True, they temporarily joined the Mexican Empire (with the exception of Costa Rica), but eventually became The Federal Republic of Central America in 1823. There was a lot of fighting, however, and eventually the Federal Republic of Central America dissolved, beginning in 1838 with Nicaragua's withdrawal. (You can read more about this from WorldAtlas.) Nevertheless, many Central American countries celebrate September 15th as their Independence Day.

3. Día de la Revolución, or Revolution Day (10/20a)

During the Great Depression, Guatemala elected Jorge Ubico in 1931 to provide strong leadership and help stabilize the country. Unfortunately, he became more of a fascist dictator. He militarized the country and implemented harsh labor laws. On July 1, 1944, Ubico was forced to resign by the growing movement against him, although he created a three-person military junta to replace him. Then Major Francisco Javier Arana and Captain Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán led the October Revolution on October 20, 1944 to remove the junta, creating what is called the "Ten Years of Spring". This is the ten years of actual democracy in Guatemala sandwiched in between Ubico's dictatorship and the US-involved coup d'état in 1954.

So there three unique holidays do revolve around a lot of fighting.



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