The English word madam can mean

  • A polite form of address for a woman or lady.

  • (slang) A woman who runs a brothel, particularly one that specializes in finding prostitutes for rich and important clients.


These two meanings stand in great contrast. One is a civilized form of address, and the other connotes an uncivilized activity (i.e. prostitution).

Are there any Latin words with sharply contrasting meanings, like the contrast we see above?

  • Written down, nitens means either, 'slaving away,' 0r 'sparkling.' One has a short i, the other long. But, closer to your choice though not as dramatic, Q. mentions Gallus "whether it means a cock or a Gaul or a proper name or an emasculated priest of tybele; " Perseus tufts has this on-line: perseus.tufts.edu (Quintilian Inst. Bk7 ch9.5+)
    – Hugh
    Jun 24 '18 at 2:13
  • Dominus was similar to "madam" in that it could either be very respectful or very insulting depending how it was used. Rex even more so. (Imagine addressing the President as "your majesty" in a heavily sarcastic way.)
    – Draconis
    Jun 24 '18 at 4:07
  • Concerning the example, I think it's misleading to think of these as two contrasting meanings. It seems more like the second is just an ironic riff off the first. "My dear sir" is quite frequently used derisively, but it would be a stretch to call it a different meaning.
    – brianpck
    Jun 24 '18 at 16:16

My suggestion is testis, which means both "testicle" and "witness". The two meanings of "madam" seem related; both refer to "a female with a significant status" or something like that. The two meanings of testis seem unrelated.

The potential for humor did not go unnoticed in antiquity. In Curculio Plautus writes quod amas amato testibus praesentibus. To love in the presence of witnesses seems to mean getting formally married or something similar. I will let you figure out the other meaning…

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