Source: Blank, A. 1999. Why Do New Meanings Occur? A Cognitive Typology of the Motivation for Lexical Semantic Change. In Historical Semantics and Cognition. Edited by P. Blank Koch, 61-90. Berlin/New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Antiphrasis: Change based on a contrastive aspect of the concepts, e.g., perfect lady in the sense of "prostitute".
Auto-antonymy: Change of a word's sense and concept to the complementary opposite, e.g., bad in the slang sense of "good".

In both, the original word adopts the (polar) opposite of its original meaning. So how do these 2 semantic shifts differ?

This deleted Reddit comment doesn't expound the distinctions enough, and I still can't distinguish.

“Perfect lady” and “prostitute” are, even if they could be considered opposite, are not antonymous in the same way that “good” and “bad” are. A lot of times we use antiphrases when we are speaking sarcastically, but you would not say that someone who exclaims “wicked!” is being sarcastic or is intentionally saying something that they mean the opposite of.

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    So far as I can see, the former is a kind of a figure of speech, so it does not exist outside the speech event. On the other hand, the latter is "settled", so one can describe it as a polysemic term having two opposite meanings. Mar 26, 2018 at 19:53
  • The terms seem not to be useful. They don't define any significant natural class of words or meanings, and the use of "contrastive" and "opposite" as if they had a clear and obvious meaning shows that the author is unclear on negation, to say the least. Opposition can occur on any linear scale, but the meanings of most words involve many dimensions of variable characteristics, often scalar but often not linear. If those two definitions are real (the distinction is hardly well-described and there are no tests), then there are many more definitions that could be made.
    – jlawler
    Aug 20, 2019 at 18:31

1 Answer 1


I will only speak of the part that the words themselves reveal. Antiphrasis, is a phrase that does exactly what you describe above. Antonymy, is something different that the term you gave up there, but maybe I'm reading the word wrong. So, Auto-antonymy, would mean what antiphrasis is, but for words. When there is a word that spoken in a certain way would mean the exact opposite. Like when somebody makes a statement and the someone's response is "Clever" while they clearly insinuate the exact opposite.

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