False antonyms (pseudoantonyms) are pairs of words that give the misleading impression that they have opposite meanings because of the prefixes (or the absence of a prefix). 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 (bate, abate), (bar, debar), (claim, declaim), (connote, denote), (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:
The prefix in- comes in three different flavors. (See dictionary.com). Two of these derive from Latin, and the third from Middle and Old English. One of the two Latin versions has a "negative or privative force"; insincere is an example of this version of the prefix. The other two versions have essentially the same meaning as the English word in; inland is an example of one of these.
The prefix dis- comes in four different flavors. Quoting from dictionary.com:
indicating reversal: disconnect; disembark
indicating negation, lack, or deprivation: dissimilar; distrust; disgrace
indicating removal or release: disembowel; disburden
expressing intensive force: dissever
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 that feel as though they ought to be opposites of something, e.g., debauch, delude, devour, disgruntle, distraught, impudent, impugn, inaugurate, indelible, inept, inert, iniquity, inveigh, and nonplussed. 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.
Some false antonyms can be made intelligible with a suitable tongue-in-cheek explanation. For example, antidote could indeed be the opposite of dote if the former refers to an anti-love potion.
There are two lessons that I hope readers will take away from this article:
(1) 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).
(2) Human language is sometimes mysterious and beautiful, and at other times a messy affair. Rather a bit like love!
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.
We are entitled to list (solve, absolve) as a false antonym pair because the prefix ab- does sometimes indicate negation, as in the word abnormal.
I've rejected some proposed false antonyms—in particular, (table, notable) and (able, notable)—as amusing but invalid because no- and not- do not function as prefixes in English.
Lively and deadly are not listed as a false antonyms for two reasons. Firstly, they don't have a common root. Secondly, the third meaning of deadly listed by dictionary.com—like death—is rather close to being an opposite of lively.
Although charming, (winsome, lose some) failed to make the cut because lose some is a phrase rather than a single word.
I've included (advent, subvent) in the list of false antonyms with reservations. (It could be argued that because the prefix ad- means toward, indicating direction, tendency, or addition, while the prefix sub- means below, the "logical" meanings of advent and subvent are not true opposites).
I have listed procreation and recreation as false synonyms, but it could be argued that they are closer to being true synonyms.
I've listed vow and disavow as false synonyms because the prefixes dis- and a- in disavow could be understood as negating one another.
The words complicity, duplicity, and multiplicity are not false synonyms, but it is surprising that these three words have such completely different meanings. At minimum, since complicity and duplicity are bad, multiplicity should be worse!
abuse, disabuse act, exact advent, subvent advise, devise aesthetic, anaesthetic affect, disaffect alter, exalter antithetic, synthetic appoint, disappoint atomic, anatomic bar, debar base, baseless base, debase basement, debasement bate, abate bate, debate bide, abide bit, debit but, debut cad, decad can, decan canny, uncanny canter, decanter card, discard carnation, incarnation cay, decay cease, decease cite, excite cite, incite claim, declaim claim, exclaim cohort, exhort comfit, discomfit commode, discommode communicate, excommunicate complicit, explicit complicit, implicit compute, dispute compute, impute conceit, deceit conception, inception concern, discern concert, disconcert conclude, include concrete, discrete concussion, discussion confection, defection confection, infection conflict, inflict confluence, influence congest, ingest connote, denote constant, instant consult, insult contact, intact contemporaneous, extemporaneous contest, detest contort, distort contour, detour convective, invective convincible, invincible course, discourse coy, decoy crease, decrease crease, increase cruciate, excruciate cry, decry cute, acute demeanor, misdemeanor demure, mure deprivation, privation desist, resist different, indifferent dismember, remember disseminate, inseminate dote, antidote duce, induce ease, disease 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 glow, aglow got, ingot grade, degrade grate, ingrate 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 liberate, deliberate light, delight lime, sublime limit, delimit liver, deliver long, along mantle, dismantle mark, demark mate, inmate may, dismay me, deme meliorate, ameliorate mend, amend mesne, demesne miss, dismiss missive, dismissive monic, demonic mote, demote new, anew nomination, denomination note, denote nude, denude oculate, inoculate ontology, deontology ordinate, inordinate pact, impact pair, impair part, depart part, impart passion, impassion passive, impassive patch, dispatch pathetic, apathetic peach, impeach pediment, impediment pend, expend pending, impending pensive, expensive perse, disperse pert, expert pertinent, impertinent petition, competition plain, explain play, display ploy, deploy ply, comply pose, depose pose, dispose pose, expose pose, impose posit, deposit 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 rive, derive scent, descent scribe, describe scry, descry sect, insect sent, dissent sign, design simulate, dissimulate sire, desire solve, absolve solve, dissolve spire, aspire spite, despite spoil, despoil spot, despot stern, astern tact, intact tail, detail tally, distally temporize, extemporize tend, distend tend, extend tend, intend tend, subtend tent, detent tent, extent tern, intern test, detest tense, intense terminate, exterminate them, anthem thwart, athwart tonation, intonation tort, distort tort, extort tour, detour toward, untoward tract, detract tress, distress trophy, atrophy tuition, intuition valuable, invaluable vent, invent vise, devise void, devoid vote, devote vow, avow wed, dewed
anaesthetic, unaesthetic abdicate, dedicate abjure, injure absolve, dissolve 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 decrease, increase decrement, excrement defect, infect defuse, infuse demure, immure depart, impart depose, dispose depose, expose depose, impose deprecation, imprecation desist, insist destitute, institute disease, unease dispense, expense distant, extant distinguish, extinguish 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 incline, decline induce, deduce 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 treat, retreat trite, contrite verse, reverse vile, revile vise, revise vocation, convocation vocation, provocation vocation, revocation vow, disavow