In this lesson I want to talk about a serious problem afflicting the Italian language! One of those problems that prevents many foreign students from understanding, at first reading or listening, what is being said or written: enantiosemy, a linguistic phenomenon by which some words, in Italian, indicate one thing… and its exact opposite! Obviously, the word affected by this phenomenon was not born with two opposite meanings, but it has acquired one of them over time.

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The most common cases of ENANTIOSEMY

Tirare (to pull/to throw)

This verb basically indicates two opposite movements! In fact, tirare means both “ to throw  something”, and “ to pull something towards oneself”.

For example:

  • Quando al mio capo non piacciono i progetti che gli presentano, li tira direttamente nel cestino. (When my boss doesn’t like the projects that are submitted to him, he throws them straight into the bin.)
  • Per entrare in un negozio mi confondo sempre e spingo la porta invece di tirarla. Ma credo capiti un ‘ po a tutti. ( When I’m going into a store I always get confused and I push the door instead of pulling it. But I think it happens to all of us.)

Spolverare (to dust/to sprinkle)

This verb, as you have certainly understood, has something to do with dust. In fact, it can mean both “to remove dust” from a surface, and “to sprinkle something powdered”.

Let’s see some examples:

  • Tra tutte le faccende di casa, quella che detesto di più è spolverare i mobili e le mensole! ( Among all house chores, the one I hate the most is dusting furniture and shelves!)
  • Spolverate infine la torta con dello zucchero a velo o del cacao in polvere. ( Lastly, sprinkle some powdered sugar or cocoa on top of the cake.)

Feriale (weekday/day off)

This adjective refers to periods of time; it indicates both “ vacation days”, that are days off from work, and “working days”, usually from Monday to Friday (or Saturday).

But how are you supposed to understand whether someone wants to talk about what they did during their vacation or while they were working? It depends on the context, of course!

Let’s see some examples:

  • Durante il periodo feriale, quindi dai primi di luglio fino alla fine di agosto, molti stabilimenti balneari italiani guadagnano quanto noi guadagniamo in un anno. (During the holiday period, so from early July to the end of August, many bathing facilities earns as much as we do in a year.)
  • Questo parcheggio è a pagamento nei giorni feriali ma gratuito nei giorni festivi. (This is a pay parking on weekdays but it’s free on non-working days.)

Ospite (host/guest)

Incredible but true, this word refers to both people: the host and the guest.

Once again, everything depends on the context! However, it has to be said that it is more used to indicate the guest.

For example:

  • Carolina è stata un’ospite eccellente: la casa era super fornita e durante il soggiorno è stata sempre disponibile. (Carolina was an excellent host: the house was super furnished and during our stay she was always available.)
  • Se non sai dove dormire, puoi essere ospite da me per qualche giorno! (If you don’t know where to sleep, you can be my guest for a couple of days!)

Storia (story, fairy-tale/history)

Do you think you know well the one and only meaning of the word “storia”? Uh-uh, there are two of them! First of all, with “storia” we can talk about a fairy-tale, usually for children. But storia is also the the whole series of (real) events happened in the past. So, here’s the opposition invented vs real!

Lets’s see some examples:

  • I miei figli si addormentano solo dopo che racconto loro almeno un paio di storie di maghi e principesse. ( My children fall asleep only after I read them at least a couple of fairy-tales about wizards and princesses.)
  • Secondo la storia, Cristoforo Colombo ha scoperto l’America nel 1492. (According to history, Christopher Columbus discovered America in 1492.)

Pauroso (scary/ scared/terrific…)

This adjective has something to do with fear, but not only. Therefore, “pauroso” is what causes fear, the person who is scared of something, but also something terrific.

For example:

  • La notte di Halloween, nella mia famiglia c’è la tradizione di vedere un film pauroso. (On Halloween night, with my family we have the tradition of watching a scary movie.)
  • Marco è così pauroso che non potrà mai vivere da solo nella sua vita! ( Marco is such a scaredy-cat that he will never be able to live by himself in his life!)
  • La ragazza di Goffredo è una figa paurosa… alla fine dei conti, anche lui è un figo pauroso!            (Goffredo’s girlfriend is smoking hot… but after all, he’s super hot as well!)

Curioso (curious/strange)

Once again, this word as well can have both the meaning of  “person with a lot of curiosity”, and “something that arouses curiosity”.

Forr example:

  • Il figlio di Lorenzo è molto curioso: fa sempre un sacco di domande su tutto quello che vede o sente! (Lorenzo’s son is really curious: he always asks a lot of questions about everything he sees or heards!)
  • La cosa curiosa è che mi è arrivato un regalo a casa, ma non ho idea di chi me lo abbia mandato.(The strange thing is that I received a gift at home, but I have no idea who sent it.)

Sbarrare (open wide/bar, block)

This verb can indicate the opening of something, but also the closure, usually with something else (such as a bar or a car, a person, in short, anything that could block a passage).

For example:

  • Quando gli abbiamo detto la verità, ha sbarrato gli occhi ed è corso via. ( When we told him the truth, he opened his eyes wide and run away.)
  • La polizia ha sbarrato la strada in cui c’era stato l’omicidio. ( The police blocked the road where the murder took place.)

Cacciare (to hunt/to kick someone out)

Again, we have this verb indicating both “to drive someone away forcefully or in a bad way”, and “to hunt”, usually an animal, to capture it.

For example:

  • Non voglio più vederlo! Se viene qui, caccialo via! (I don’t wanna see him anymore! If he comes here, kick him out!)
  • In questa zona, si cacciano i cinghiali. ( In this area, boars are hunted.)

Affittare (to rent out/to rent)

This verb is extremely common, especially  if you’re thinking about spending some time in Italy. But, be careful, because if you go around saying “Voglio affittare un appartamento” (I want to rent a flat), people might ask you “What do you mean?”. Not because your Italian is incorrect, but because “affittare” can mean “to rent out to someone”, that is letting them use that property (flat, house or land) for a period of time, and “to rent”, which is the exact opposite: using someone else’s property for a period of time.


If you want to discover another particular phenomenon of the Italian language, I suggest you watch the video about the words that change their meaning when a single letter changes: trust me, it’s crazy!


Let’s see if you’ve mastered the contents of this class. Have a go at completing the exercises!


One thought to “ENANTIOSEMY: Italian words with two OPPOSITE MEANINGS”

  1. Ciao,
    Ho trovato qualche enantiosemoa in inglese.

    “Clip” puo significare “tagliare” (Ho tagliato i miei capelli) or “allegare” (Ho allegato il distintivo alla mia giacca.)
    “Left puo significare rimannere o partire. Ne uno e rimasto sul tavalo. One was left. E’ andato via dopo il pranzo. He left after lunch.
    “Off “ puo significare accendersi e comminciare o fermare. (“Mi sono svegliato quando il alarme e’ accesso.” The alarm went off -started to ring. Ho spinto il alarme. I turned off (stopped) the alarm.
    Anche in inglese “to dust” puo significare mettere lo zucchero (per essempio) sulla torta) e pulire il polvere dal tavolo

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