We’re taught in grade school English about synonyms (words with similar meanings) and antonyms (words with opposite meanings). What I don’t recall is learning about contronyms. That refers to a word that can have two contradictory, if not opposite, meanings.

A common contronym in public affairs is “sanction.” The U.S. has sanctions that prevent American companies from doing business with Russian counterparts. However, in other contexts, the word sanction also means to grant permission.

In everyday parlance, “strike” means to hit. On the baseball diamond, a strike is what can happen when you don’t get a hit.

Sign Up for E-News

There also are words whose meaning has changed over time, usually due to misuse. We say “presently” when we mean at the current time, but, in fact, that word’s native definition means “soon,” as in, “I am busy right now, but will be with you presently.” 

It occurs to me there is another category of contronym: Words whose meaning morphs from one extreme to the other depending on whose mouth is uttering them.

Who would have predicted, just a few years ago, that the innocent little word “snowflake” would become politicized with a level of toxicity that could melt an ice cap. Yet here we are at that sorry pass: some stubbornly still admire the beauty and fragility and natural phenomena of snowflakes, while others have snowballed the same word into a blizzard of ridicule and disdain. (Worth remembering, too, that when a critical mass of snowflakes gathers momentum, it’s called an avalanche.)

There are two other terms fraught with meanings that vary according to the person speaking them. I’m speaking of “strong” and “weak.” For example, there are folks who equate bluster with strength, while other folks see bluster as a sign of weakness, an affectation that clumsily compensates for insecurity.

Some say it’s weak for a man to show emotion. Others say there is no greater sign of strength in a man’s character and self-awareness than being unafraid to appear sensitive at the most vulnerable and visible moments.

Some hold dear to the great and indispensable American value of civility. Others hold dear to their right to dispense with civility when convenient by politicizing it as “political correctness.” You can decide for yourself if avoiding civility and decency by writing them off as political correctness is a sign of strength or weakness.

These thoughts—whether weak or strong or in between—came to mind when I came across something I never heard of before: H’oponopono. Fair warning: this is not for folks who think sensitivity is a sign of weakness. Or for those who equate bluster with strength.

H’oponopono is reserved for the strongest in civilized society, who embrace the notion that no one is more accountable for your happiness and state of being than you. Anyone can play the blame game. Looking inside yourself with relentless honesty and humility? That’s tough.

H’oponopono is Hawaiian for “correction.” It also is a spiritual discipline designed to foster reconciliation and forgiveness. There are Hawaiian healers who practice this form of new age therapy.

I’m not proselytizing the practice of H’oponopono, especially since I’m wholly ignorant of its legacy. For the purpose of capping this column, and hewing to the theme above, it’s enough to know that the mantra associated with H’oponopono is as follows…

“I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you.”

If you know someone who finds that sentiment weak, may they find the strength to correct themselves. 

Bruce Apar is chief content officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner Agency. Its Adventix division helps performing arts venues increase ticket sales. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals, including Westchester Magazine. Follow him as Bruce the Blog on social media. Reach him at bapar@pinpointmarketingdesign.com or 914-275-6887.