Is "ospite" a host or a guest? Italian auto-antonyms.

Many languages have words, known as auto-antonyms , that feature the peculiar property of conveying two opposite meanings, according to the sentence or to the context. For instance, the word "awful", which is frequently understood as meaning "(very) bad", "(very) ugly", "terrible", etc., can in fact also refer to something "impressive", "awe-inspiring", although for expressing this meaning other terms are more commonly used.
Similar words are found also in the Italian language. They are labelled as parole enantiosemiche (from Greek enantios = "opposite"), and some of them are encountered in everyday's conversation.

  • Ospite [masculine / feminine] = either "host" or "guest". Used as an adjective, the word means "guest" (e.g. la squadra ospite = "the guest team"), "hosted (by someone)". Instead, the verb ospitare means "to host" (someone or something).

  • Affittare = either "to rent", "to hire" (e.g. a car, but not a worker) or "to let" (i.e. a house).

  • Storia = either "history" (i.e. actual facts of the past), or "story" (i.e. a fictional account).

  • Pauroso = either "fearsome" (i.e. inspiring fear) or "timorous" (i.e. someone who is easily frightened). A similar auto-antonym in English is "fearful".

  • Cacciare = either "to send away (roughly)", or "to hunt" (i.e. to seek for a prey). In very informal speech this verb also has a meaning of "to pull out, to produce, to show" (e.g. a ticket).

  • Tirare = either "to pull" (i.e. to draw something or someone towards oneself) or "to throw".

  • Feriale [adjective] = either pertaining to holidays (e.g. periodo feriale = "off-work period") or to ordinary weekdays (e.g. giorni feriali = Monday to Friday). The noun ferie, always used in plural form, means "off-work" (e.g. un giorno di ferie = "one off-work day").

  • Spolverare = either "to dust" (i.e. to remove dust from objects) or "to powder" (i.e. to sprinkle a powdered substance, e.g. sugar on a cake).

  • Curioso [adjective] = "curious". This is an auto-antonym in English, as well, because it can mean either "inquisitive" (moved by curiosity) or "unusual, odd" (inspiring curiosity).

  • Sanzionare = "to sanction". Also this is an auto-antonym in both languages, as it can mean either "to approve" (something by an authority), or "to strike with sanctions".

March 10, 2018


Thank you for this interesting and helpful post. Just what I need to help me learn more. These can be my 'words for today'.

March 10, 2018

Grazie per le spiegazioni. Sono utili anche per noi italiani che cerchiamo di imparare la lingua inglese

March 10, 2018

Concerning affittare, Chinese has a similar situation with a single character (借) denoting both "lend" and "borrow", though one can say 借给 for "lend" for clarity's sake. English does have two separate words, but they are often misused and confused with each other. I wonder if the phenomenon extends to other languages as well, and whether anyone has done a study on it?

Fascinating and useful list; thank you for another great post, CivisRomanus!

March 10, 2018

This is great!

Re: Spolverare. I'm always struck when there's such a strong analog across languages, when the words may be so utterly alien from one another. For instance, I'd use the verb "dust" to describe cleaning, but I'd also say "dust" to describe sprinkle powdered sugar on something.

Thank you!

March 10, 2018

Grazie CivisRomanus, we continue to learn from you on a daily basis. Tanti auguri, Linda

March 10, 2018

@CivisRomanus Thank you! Another bookmarked page.

March 10, 2018

I don't quite know how to phrase this question, but is the host/guest relationship conceived of somewhat differently by Italians? Being the same word is it probably viewed more "symmetrically" than for English speakers? Like there are two "ospites" in a relationship of ospite-ness, and who needs to worry about distinctions all the time? An English analogue might be "first cousin once removed" where the parties to this relationship are non-symmetrical (one being in a different generation than the other) but yet the relationship they have to one another is captured in one word.

Or do you think these are as clearly delineated in the Italian imagination as, say, the two senses of "dust" in English, where it's easy to not notice there are two contradictory meanings because they are always used differently? ("dust" meaning "to apply lightly" probably always requiring the "agent" of the dusting: "the snow-dusted trees").

March 10, 2018

If I understood well the question, no, there is no difference in the host/guest relationship.
Ospite comes from Latin hospes, which already had both meanings, i.e. the host and the guest, the landlord and the visitor. So they were both maintained in Italian.
Having to tell one from the other in a sentence, e.g. "both the host and the guests had a good time", an alternative word for "host" is anfitrione, which sprang from a Greek mythological personage, then appearing as a character in a play by the Roman playright Plautus (c.200 BC), which was rewritten by Molière in the 17th century.
So l'anfitrione e l'ospite would actually mean "the host and the guest".

March 11, 2018

how can i subscribe to your wise words?

March 13, 2018

Thank you for calling my words 'wise'.
All you can do, I guess, is to hit the 'Follow' button in my profile page.

March 19, 2018
  • 2002

In English as well, "guest" and "host" share the same etymology:*ghos-ti-

May 8, 2019

I don't agree with the inclusion of the pair history/story = storia in thist list. A story isn't necessarily a fictional account and history is not necessarily an objective representation of the past - only an approximation of it.

Neither do I understand why curious=inquisitive or =unusual, odd are opposite meanings, not just different ones.

March 10, 2018

Storia can be either fictional or non-fictional.
In everyday's conversation, the word is perceived with this dual meaning.
The Treccani dictionary says (meaning n°4) «Racconto di un insieme di vicende e avvenimenti, reali o immaginarî».
And (4c): «Cosa inventata, racconto bugiardo, fandonia.»
If one tries to apologize for being late (or for some other reason) using unreliable justifications, the listener is verly likely to reply: "Non raccontarmi storie!"
At bedtime, children are told or, better, used to be told la storia di... A more proper word for 'tale' would be favola, or fiaba, but in informal speech it is storia.
So the word does convey both meanings according to the context.

Neither do I understand why curious=inquisitive or =unusual, odd are opposite meanings, not just different ones.

Because if I am curious, I investigate upon something (regardless of whether it is interesting or not).
If something is curious, it induces me to investigate upon it (regardless of whether I am inquisitive or not).
So the relation between this adjective and the subject / object of the sentence is semantically reversed.

March 11, 2018

But the English "story" can also be either fictional or non-fictional - or rather, based on real events. So yes, storia has a dual meaning, but not really one meaning which is the reverse of the other.

So the relation between this adjective and the subject / object of the sentence is semantically reversed.

The relation is reversed, but not the meaning. "inquisitive" is not exactly opposite from "interesting".

I don't mean to be pedantic, but I just think these two are not really great examples of auto-antonyms.

March 11, 2018

With regard to storia, it might not be an evident example. But this word is commonly used with a meaning of "fictional / fake / untruthful account, fib" (Treccani, 4c); its antonym would be "an account of actual facts", which is another meaning of this word.

I agree that curioso is not a perfect example of auto-antonym, as it does not convey two opposite meanings. But according to whether the adjective is referred to a living being or to an inanimate object, it overturns the causal relation between the two, in that being curious for a person or an animal actively induces interest towards something, while the person's or animal's interest is passively drawn by something curious.

March 12, 2018

The interesting thing with these two words "storia" and curioso though, is that their translations are used in the same way as in Italian and English, in at least one more language, as far as I know. Modern Greek uses περίεργος for "being curious about/in sth" and for "looking strange".

June 22, 2018
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