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 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), (predation, depredation), (prohibition, inhibition), (protest, detest), (ravel, unravel), (restive, restless), (simulate, dissimulate), (terminate, exterminate), and (valuable, invaluable). (Some students might add (test, detest) to this list).

Some pseudo-antonyms can be understood as quasi-synonyms if viewed properly. (This may require squinting to the point that things become quite obscure). Here are a few, only modestly tongue-in-cheek examples:

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 that feel as though they ought to be opposites of something, e.g., debauch, delude, denigrate, deracinate, devour, disgruntle, distraught, impudent, impugn, inaugurate, indelible, inept, inert, iniquity, intransigent, 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.

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.


2. List of False Antonyms

a, aa
abuse, disabuse
act, exact
advent, subvent
advise, devise
aesthetic, anaesthetic
affect, disaffect
agonistic, antagonistic
alter, exalter
~ Algic, antalgic
antithetic, synthetic
appoint, disappoint
~ Aries, notaries
atomic, anatomic

bar, debar
base, baseless
base, debase
basement, debasement
bate, abate
bate, debate
bet, abet
bide, abide
bit, debit
booted, bootless
but, debut

cad, decad
can, decan
canal, decanal
canny, uncanny
canter, decanter
canthus, acanthus
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
conquest, inquest
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
creed, decreed
cruciate, excruciate
cry, decry
cure, procure
cute, acute

demeanor, misdemeanor
demure, mure
~ dentist, irredentist
denounce, pronounce
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

famous, infamous
fancy, infancy
feat, defeat
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
greed, agreed
gust, disgust

hale, exhale
head, ahead
hortatory, exhortatory
hypercritical, hypocritical

~ I, ai
implication, explication
implore, explore
impound, expound
in-law, outlaw
inception, exception
incise, excise
increment, excrement
incumbent, recumbent
indolent, redolent
infantry, adultery
infusion, profusion
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
livery, delivery
long, along
luge, deluge

mantle, dismantle
mark, demark
mass, amass
mate, inmate
may, dismay
me, deme
mean, demean
meliorate, ameliorate
mend, amend
mesne, demesne
mise, demise
miss, dismiss
missal, dismissal
missive, dismissive
monic, demonic
mote, demote
new, anew
nomination, denomination
note, denote
novation, innovation
nude, denude
oculate, inoculate
ontology, deontology
ordinate, inordinate
pact, impact
pair, impair
pale, impale
part, depart
part, impart
passion, impassion
passive, impassive
patch, dispatch
pathetic, apathetic
peach, impeach
pediment, impediment
pend, expend
pending, impending
pensive, dispensive
pensive, expensive
perse, disperse
pert, expert
pertinent, impertinent
petition, competition
plain, explain
plastic, dysplastic
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
predation, depredation
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
remonstrate, demonstrate
reify, deify
respect, inspect
restive, restless
ride, deride
rive, derive
rose, arose
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
state, instate
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
thymic, dysthymic
tom, atom
tonation, intonation
topic, dystopic
tort, distort
tort, extort
tour, detour
toward, untoward
tract, detract
tract, extract
tress, distress
trophy, atrophy
tuition, intuition
valuable, invaluable
vent, invent
vice, device
vise, devise
vocation, invocation
void, devoid
vote, devote
vow, avow
wed, dewed

3. List of False Synonyms

adultery, adulteration
anaesthetic, unaesthetic
abdicate, dedicate
abjure, injure
absolve, dissolve
aviation, deviation
awesome, awful
bate, rebate
buff, rebuff
cant, recant
cent, recent
compute, dispute
confound, profound
confusion, profusion
congress, progress
constitute, prostitute
consult, result
contest, protest
context, pretext
contraception, inception
covert, revert
creation, recreation
curse, recurse
decantation, incantation
decide, excide
decision, incision
decrease, increase
decrement, excrement
defect, infect
defuse, infuse
demure, immure
depart, impart
depose, dispose
depose, expose
depose, impose
deprecation, imprecation
desist, insist
destitute, institute
detract, extract
discriminate, incriminate
disease, unease
dispense, expense
dispensive, expensive
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
legate, relegate
miss, remiss
move, remove
mute, commute
past, repast
petition, repetition
plication, complication
ply, reply
pose, repose
procession, concession
procreation, recreation
project, reject
prove, reprove
pulse, repulse
quest, conquest, request
science, conscience
scribe, prescribe
scribe, proscribe
sensual, consensual
sent, consent
sent, resent
side, reside
sole, console
sort, consort
sort, resort
spite, respite
store, restore
tact, contact
tail, retail
tempt, contempt
tense, pretense
tent, content
test, protest
text, context
text, pretext
tort, retort
tour, contour
treat, retreat
trite, contrite
verse, reverse
vile, revile
vise, revise
vocation, convocation
vocation, provocation
vocation, revocation

Last update 4 July, 2021