Having just recently moved to the United States from Japan with her family Miyo has been working hard trying to understand the English language. Miyo's parents encourage her to focus on reading and writing but she prefers to learn by listening to oral conversations.

One of her favorite places to learn is a construction site not far from her home. One week ago Miyo hears the foreman use a word and from how the construction workers respond she is confident that she understands its meaning.

Today Miyo hears the foreman use what sounds like the exact same word (this time he sounds slightly upset) and the construction workers proceed to do the opposite of what they did the week before.

Assume that Miyo has great hearing and the word she heard today really did sound the same as the word the heard the week before.

What can explain the construction workers responding in a seemingly opposite manner to an instruction that included a word that sounded the same as what she heard one week earlier?

  • $\begingroup$ Unrelated to this puzzle, but rather similar in concept: Someone was supposed to help, but when people checked how useful he was and asked what did he do all day, the supervisor said: [diddly] squat. Later on, someone else was asked what he did all day, and the answer was: he didn't do [diddly] squat. $\endgroup$
    – TOOGAM
    Jun 11, 2016 at 22:09
  • $\begingroup$ Unrelated, but similar in concept: I recall from Latin lessons that the single word altus, -a, -um could mean either "high" (e.g., a fence) or "deep" (e.g., a trench) $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2016 at 22:21
  • 12
    $\begingroup$ I don't think Miyo's going to hear anything good on a construction site. $\endgroup$
    – Strawberry
    Jun 11, 2016 at 23:04
  • $\begingroup$ Don't worry... It's inflammable! youtube.com/watch?v=Q8mD2hsxrhQ $\endgroup$
    – jmite
    Jun 11, 2016 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ I might also question the honor of the contractor. I have never met an honest private contractor. $\endgroup$ Jun 12, 2016 at 2:43

12 Answers 12



Miyo heard the word
raise one week - meaning to move something up and the word
raze on the other week - meaning to level to the ground


The first day, the foreman said to:

stand fast. And the workers all stood around waiting.

The second day, the foreman said to:

do something fast. And the workers all started moving quickly.

What Miyo didn't hear was that on the third day, the foreman said to:

fast. And the workers all stopped eating.

Which is good because it would probably only have confused her further.

  • $\begingroup$ This is alright, but it in no way warrants 20 I'm downvoting - but only to restore some balance. $\endgroup$
    – Strawberry
    Jun 14, 2016 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Strawberry alrighty then $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Jun 15, 2016 at 0:19
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Strawberry: You shouldn't vote just to "restore balance." Only vote down if you actually feel the answer is low quality. $\endgroup$ Jun 15, 2016 at 12:57

Oh no don't worry about its looks - just carry on building and it'll all be fine.

Oh no... guys, remember last week when we were talking about how the structural steel looked like cheap plastic? Turns out it was cheap plastic...

  • $\begingroup$ I like the creativity, but that is not the word I had in mind $\endgroup$
    – Luke
    Jun 11, 2016 at 12:22
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @Luke - Maybe you should specify that you are looking for a homophone, not just a word that can mean different things in different situations. $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2016 at 19:19

There are several possibilities. Here's a suggestion:

One week ago ...

Foreman: ... and we're off. Bob, buckle up! Can we fix it? Yes we can!

Today ...

Foreman: ... now we're in a fix, but it wasn't our fault that the span buckled. And just like that, we're off.

Here are the senses of the words used:

  • Off: start (of work), dismissed
  • Buckle: fasten, bent (buckled)
  • Fix: repair, trouble.
  • $\begingroup$ I like the creativity, but that is not the word I had in mind $\endgroup$
    – Luke
    Jun 11, 2016 at 12:23

One of my favorite examples of a completely counterintuitive word is restive.

Definition according to a quick google search:

(of a person) unable to keep still or silent and becoming increasingly difficult to control, especially because of impatience, dissatisfaction, or boredom.

Yet, with the qualifying definition:

(of a horse) refusing to advance, stubbornly standing still or moving backward or sideways.

The reason for this is because originally the term was applied to a rebellious horse. A miffed horse will refuse to move according to a handler's command, staying at rest. Hence, "restive". However, by applying that disobedience to a different subject, such as a child, their disobedience manifests in being fidgety and over-active.

Part of why language can be so confusing. By preserving the spirituality of how a word is used, it gains wildly different implementations.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Would the workers understand that word? $\endgroup$
    – svick
    Jun 11, 2016 at 17:03
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think so. Looking at the OED one of the sources for the use of restive pertaining to horses is in the Glossographia, which is described as a dictionary of "hard or unusual" words. $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2016 at 18:00
  • $\begingroup$ Maybe it was a construction site for a new library and the workers were building narrative structures. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Jun 13, 2016 at 8:34

Perhaps the word she heard is simply:


Yesterday, she heard the foreman say that:

The equipment should be moved to the opposite side, and they moved it to the back.

Today, she heard the foreman say:

The equipment should be moved to the opposite side, and they moved it to the front (they did the opposite the opposite direction).


Perhaps the foreman had the workers re-sign their contracts.

Or perhaps the foreman employed an American workforce one day and a British workforce the next. The Americans heard his command, waited a few seconds, and then began work. The next day, the Brits heard the same command, worked for a few seconds and then stopped for the rest of the day. The foreman's sadness was because he knew this was coming but didn't know how else to express himself...

To both teams the foreman said:

"We'll commence work momentarily"


She might have heard

Joe, Scaffolding!

The first day would be putting it up (before doing something), the second taking it down (after something had been done). The worker would understand which from the context of the job they were doing.

It actually could be

any noun used as an order - for example, 'Tools!' at the beginning of a job to bring them out, at the end to pack them away. Or any order which assumes the worker will act on a context which changed between the two instants.

I picked the example because the 'ing' ending might have helped her to mistake it for a verb.

Another alternative might be

Break, which might mean to pick up a tool to break something, or take a break, which would be to put down the tool and walk away.

It's perhaps a more reasonable answer, but less amusing.

  • $\begingroup$ +1: less linguistically creative than other answers, but much more likely in real life! $\endgroup$ Jun 13, 2016 at 9:20

Literally doesn't literally mean "literally!"

In fact the word means two things:

  • Really, actually, etc. ("Don't worry, we are literally 10 minutes late")
  • Figuratively ("Hurry up! We are literally 900 million years late!")
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ The second use is literally wrong. $\endgroup$
    – Strawberry
    Jun 12, 2016 at 8:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Strawberry It's wrong, but many people use it that way. $\endgroup$
    – SirPython
    Jun 13, 2016 at 1:26
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ The double use of "literally" is sanctioned by Merriam-Webster. among others... $\endgroup$
    – DJohnM
    Jun 13, 2016 at 2:32
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Strawberry You are literally wrong - english.stackexchange.com/a/154580/53089 $\endgroup$
    – user10676
    Jun 13, 2016 at 2:59
  • $\begingroup$ Webster's dictionary now accepts "literally" meaning not literally? Argh! It's true! $\endgroup$
    – user21939
    Jun 13, 2016 at 13:03

Day 1 - The door lock is tight and does not open.

Day 2 - The door lock is tight. Its the shit....

Miyo: Wait, its the shit?...But I thought you liked it. We just loosened it and it finally works.


Being an Indian, we are more inclined to British English than American. Often when visiting one of the non-European western countries, I had often been in situation that was either amusing or embarrassing.

Incident 1:

The company I used to work for supported geographical diversity at work-space, and during lunch breaks, we used to eat together. I would often bring my lunch and was eager to share it with other fellow American colleagues referring to it as homely food. I never understood, why my utterance of homely made everyone bemused until I realized, what we mean from our home was rather perceived as unattractive. I bless my stars as how often I wanted to complement someone as homely but nevertheless that never happened. I wonder how things would have turned up then.

Incident 2:

Every week, we used to send a pager report, which had a short snippet of the causal-analysis along with any cross team interaction details. In one of the reports, I remember mentioning that so-and-so had intimated me based on which I had taken some action. Within minutes of sending it, I received a call from higher up who wanted me to explain how the person from his team intimidated me. That definitely could have been perceived as a workplace harassment, if not a false allegation to the least. I had to explain how the two words are so different. Later I realized, most Americans have never ever intimated anyone in their life, rather they prefer to inform. I was saved the second time again.


Some English words mean one thing and its opposite. Sometimes this occurs because a group of people use the word incorrectly, i.e. "nonplussed." Until sometime in the 80s or 90s, nonplussed meant confused or perplexed. Whereas, now "informally" throughout North America, it means unconcerned or unperturbed.

Another word that can mean its opposite is "sanction," whether used as a verb or a noun. Here are examples using the verb: "His parents cannot sanction him marrying a man." versus, "The government will sanction any nation giving sanctuary to terrorists."

I doubt, however, construction workers admit to feeling nonplussed using either meaning. Likewise, sanction.

  • $\begingroup$ "literally" is another example of this, which means "figuratively" with some emphasis more often than it means "actually". There's also "could/couldnt care less", both of which have the same meaning. $\endgroup$ Jun 11, 2016 at 20:44
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ These are contranyms, but I disagree that 'literally' has two meanings. People just use it incorrectly sometimes. $\endgroup$
    – Strawberry
    Jun 12, 2016 at 8:31
  • $\begingroup$ People use "literally" as an intensifier, which is not incorrect. I've never seen anyone complain about "very" or "really" used in the same way. $\endgroup$
    – f''
    Jun 13, 2016 at 4:08

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