False Antonyms (Pseudoantonyms) and False Synonyms (Pseudosynonyms)

Dr. Phillip M. Feldman

1. Introduction

False antonyms (pseudoantonyms) are pairs of words that give the misleading impression that they have opposite meanings, usually because of the prefixes, but occasionally because of the absence of a prefix on one of the two or because of a suffix on one. Likewise, false synonyms (pseudosynonyms) are pairs of words that give the misleading impression that they have the same or at least similar meanings. The profusion of false antonyms and false synonyms in English reflects the fact that English is more of a mongrel language than most. It is also worth noting that false antonyms and synonyms are one of the major pitfalls for non-native English speakers and writers.

Curiously, many false antonyms are much closer to being synonyms than antonyms. Prime examples include (bar, debar), (claim, declaim), (contort, distort), (conception, inception), (flammable, inflammable), (legate, delegate), (limit, delimit), (mend, amend), (note, denote), (part, depart), (passive, impassive), (pending, impending), (prohibition, inhibition), (protest, detest), (ravel, unravel), (restive, restless), (simulate, dissimulate), (terminate, exterminate), and (valuable, invaluable). (Some students might add (test, detest) to this list).

I started collecting false antonyms in the late 1990's, possibly inspired by Prof. Richard Lederer's famous but slightly misleading quip, If pro and con are opposites, is congress the opposite of progress? As I'm sure Dr. Lederer knows, the prefixes pro- and con- are not opposites at all. In compounds of Latin derivation, the prefix con- means together or with. In words such as contradiction, contrary, and contrast, the prefix is actually contra-, which comes from the Latin and means against or opposing.

One of the factors contributing to the large number of false antonyms and false synonyms in English is that several prefixes come in multiple flavors having different meanings. I will cite just two examples:

In the audio course The Story of Human Language by Prof. John McWhorte, the author observes that word pronunciations have drifted over time (they continue to do so), and that spellings of words tended to drift with the pronunciations until printed books became widely available. The word impossible, for example, was originally inpossible; the change occurred because the combination of n followed by p is difficult to pronounce.

False antonyms are often etymologically unrelated words. An example is (crease, increase).  Crease comes from the late Middle English crest, while increase comes from a Latin root.

When a word has a prefix such as in- that has multiple flavors, the classification of that word as a false antonym or false synonym of another word typically depends on the choice of a specific meaning for the prefix. It is fair game to pick any of the available meanings of a given prefix.

The pair (instruct, destruct) could be viewed as either a false antonym or false synonym, depending on which meaning one chooses for the prefix in-. In such cases, I've included the pair in one list or the other—not both.

Despite the large number of counterexamples in the list of false antonyms, the prefixes in- (or im-) and ex- do sometimes produce antonyms. (Otherwise, we would not be entitled to list the counterexamples as false antonyms). Examples are (import, export), (include, exclude), (implicit, explicit), (implode, explode), and (internal, external).

[Footnote: Although their connotations make the words exhibit and inhibit feel like antonyms, they are not. (The opposite of the primary meaning of exhibit as a verb would be something like conceal, which is quite different in meaning from inhibit).]

Also of interest are words like debauch, delude, devour, disgruntle, distraught, impudent, impugn, indelible, inept, inert, iniquity, and inveigh, which feel as though they ought to be opposites of something. There are generally good etymological explanations for the existence of such words, but this is not very comforting to those of us who like things to be ordered and tidy. In rare cases, "missing" words such as kempt (the opposite of unkempt) have been added to the language; this process is known as backformation.

If any lesson is to be learned from this article, it is that attempting to deduce the meaning of an English word by combining the meanings of its constituent parts is a risky enterprise. (That process could easily lead one to conclude that one must become preeminent before one can become eminent).

In closing, I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Prof. Bard C. Cosman, who has provided a simultaneously scholarly and lighthearted perspective on this endeavor.


2. List of False Antonyms

abuse, disabuse
act, exact
advent, subvent
advise, devise
affect, disaffect
antithetic, synthetic
appoint, disappoint
bar, debar
base, baseless
base, debase
basement, debasement
bate, debate
canny, uncanny
card, discard
carnation, incarnation
cite, excite
cite, incite
claim, declaim
claim, exclaim
cohort, exhort
commode, discommode
communicate, excommunicate
complicit, explicit
complicit, implicit
compute, dispute
compute, impute
conception, inception
concern, discern
concert, disconcert
conclude, include
concussion, discussion
confection, defection
confection, infection
conflict, inflict
confluence, influence
congest, ingest
constant, instant
consult, insult
contact, intact
contemporaneous, extemporaneous
contest, detest
contort, distort
contour, detour
convective, invective
convincible, invincible
course, discourse
coy, decoy
crease, increase
cruciate, excruciate
cry, decry
demeanor, misdemeanor
demure, mure
deprivation, privation
desist, resist
different, indifferent
dote, antidote
exaction, inaction
excess, recess
excite, incite
exert, inert
expiration, inspiration
extent, intent
extort, retort
fend, defend
ferment, deferment
fiance, defiance
figure, disfigure
file, defile
fine, define
flammable, inflammable
form, inform
fraction, infraction
fray, defray
fringe, infringe
fuse, infuse
gust, disgust
hale, exhale
hortatory, exhortatory
hypercritical, hypocritical
implication, explication
implore, explore
impound, expound
inception, exception
incise, excise
increment, excrement
inset, outset
insist, resist
inspire, expire
insult, result
intend, extend
intention, extension
intense, pretense
intricate, extricate
invert, covert
invert, revert
invoke, provoke
invoke, revoke
junction, injunction
jury, injury
legate, delegate
light, delight
lime, sublime
limit, delimit
mantle, dismantle
mark, demark
may, dismay
meliorate, ameliorate
mend, amend
miss, dismiss
missive, dismissive
monic, demonic
mote, demote
nomination, denomination
note, denote
nude, denude
oculate, inoculate
pact, impact
pair, impair
part, depart
part, impart
passion, impassion
passive, impassive
patch, dispatch
pediment, impediment
pend, expend
pending, impending
pensive, expensive
pert, expert
pertinent, impertinent
petition, competition
plain, explain
play, display
ploy, deploy
pose, depose
pose, dispose
pose, expose
pose, impose
position, disposition
position, exposition
position, imposition
poster, imposter
pound, expound
pound, impound
prelude, delude
press, express
prohibition, inhibition
project, inject
proponent, exponent
proscribe, describe
proscribe, inscribe
protect, detect
protest, detest
prove, improve
range, derange
ravel, unravel
recantation, incantation
reify, deify
respect, inspect
restive, restless
ride, deride
scribe, describe
scry, descry
sect, insect
sent, dissent
sign, design
simulate, dissimulate
sire, desire
solve, dissolve
spite, despite
spoil, despoil
tact, intact
tail, detail
tally, distally
temporize, extemporize
tend, distend
tend, extend
tend, subtend
tent, detent
tent, extent
tern, intern
test, detest
tense, intense
terminate, exterminate
thwart, athwart
tonation, intonation
tort, distort
tort, extort
tour, detour
toward, untoward
tract, detract
tress, distress
trophy, atrophy
tuition, intuition
valuable, invaluable
vent, invent
void, devoid

3. List of False Synonyms

abdicate, dedicate
abjure, injure
aviation, deviation
buff, rebuff
cant, recant
cent, recent
compute, dispute
confound, profound
congress, progress
constitute, prostitute
consult, result
contest, protest
contraception, inception
covert, revert
creation, recreation
decantation, incantation
decide, excide
decrement, excrement
defect, infect
defuse, infuse
demure, immure
depart, impart
depose, dispose
depose, expose
depose, impose
deprecation, imprecation
desist, insist
destitute, institute
dispense, expense
distant, extant
distort, extort
done, condone
dress, redress
duce, reduce
expend, impend
explore, deplore
expose, impose
fine, confine
found, confound
impassion, dispassion
implore, deplore
impose, depose
impose, expose
impound, expound
infer, defer
inform, deform
injected, dejected
insert, desert
instruct, destruct
inter, deter
involve, devolve
late, prolate
late, relate
miss, remiss
move, remove
past, repast
petition, repetition
ply, reply
pose, repose
procession, concession
procreation, recreation
project, reject
prove, reprove
pulse, repulse
science, conscience
scribe, prescribe
scribe, proscribe
sensual, consensual
sent, resent
side, reside
sort, consort
sort, resort
spite, respite
store, restore
tact, contact
tempt, contempt
tense, pretense
test, protest
text, pretext
tort, retort
tour, contour
trite, contrite
verse, reverse
vile, revile
vise, revise
vocation, revocation

Last update 15 Mar., 2017