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When opposites don’t attract. February 27, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , ,

Hasty disclaimer: This post is about language, not relationship issues.

Our friend Ben is a wordaholic, so when there’s something unusual about a word (such as the three “u”s in “unusual”), it tends to attract my attention. One thing about words that I’ve given some thought to is word pairs that happen when a positive word is given an opposite and negative meaning by adding a negative prefix, such as de-, dis-, un-, anti-, mal-, in-, mis-, and the like. (Think of deconstruct/construct, disinclined/inclined, uncomfortable/comfortable, antimatter/matter, malcontent/content, inhospitable/hospitable, mispronounce/pronounce.)

Language being what it is, there are exceptions to every rule, and sometimes pairs are made by adding both negative and positive prefixes to a root. Some that come to mind are malevolent/benevolent, destructive/constructive, antipathy/sympathy (or empathy), dissolution/resolution. And sometimes, the negative opposite can lose its negative connotation: incredible and unbelievable can be used as exclamations of approval or amazement, or as the opposites of credible and believable. And inflammable and flammable, by an unfortunate fluke (“inflammable” actually derives from “inflame”), actually mean the same thing, that something burns easily. 

But the point of today’s post is those orphaned words that have, as our language evolved, lost their opposite numbers. Our friend Ben learned this lesson the hard way because of the phrase “inclement weather.” I had read this all my life, and assumed it was a unique expression for bad weather. I had never actually heard it, so, like many words I’d only read but hadn’t realized I’d never heard because I sounded them in my head, I mispronounced it: inkle-ment. It was only when someone finally took me to task for this that I realized that this word was the opposite of clement, good, since I had never heard or read of anyone referring to “clement weather.”

Here are some other orphans that have lost their opposites:

Detestable: Nasty, hateful, yucky. But whatever happened to “testable”?

Derivative: Eeewww, you’re pretty much just copying somebody else’s stuff, you pathetic little worm. But as far as I know, there’s no “rivative” applying to original thought, inventions, or discoveries.

Anarchy: The promotion of chaos. But somehow “archy” has been lost as its opposite. We retain hierarchy for a rigidly structured system, but since that has its own negative connotations, it’s hardly the opposite of anarchy. And other “-archies” like monarchy, patriarchy, and matriarchy are too limited to oppose it.

Indisposed: Oh, sorry, she’s indisposed. But when did you last hear that someone was disposed, in the connotation of feeling well as opposed to inclining to a favorable view?

Displaced: You have a displaced shoulder, collarbone, or the like? When did you have a “placed” bone or joint, I wonder? 

Malware: Bad stuff that infects your computer and wreaks havoc. But what about the good stuff that faithfully does its job to help the computer run? There’s no “ware” or “beneware” or anything else like that that I know of.

Misogynist: Someone who hates women. God knows what the opposite of this one is; I’m sure there is one, but I’ve never heard it.

Indecorous: Oops, you’ve somehow failed to act in a socially approved manner. But when have you last heard that someone behaved in a decorous manner?

Insipid: Bland and boring. Lots of stuff is insipid, but have you ever encountered something “sipid”?

Detrimental: Ouch, this one’s definitely no good for you, it’s harmful (to, say, your career or reputation) instead. But if you’ve ever heard of anything that builds you up by being “trimental,” please do let me know.

Derelict: Yo, you’ve skirted your duties, or that abandoned building looks like it’s about to topple. If only you (or it) had been “relict” instead.

Needless to say, there are plenty more. Our friend Ben invites you to submit your own favorites!


1. Yitz - April 8, 2011

What is the opposite of disgruntled? Are you feeling rather gruntled today, given the pleasant weather and light workload?

Yes, that’s a good one, Yitz, and “gruntled” is indeed a real word, though mercifully, given its porcine overtones, it has fallen out of common usage.

2. Carthy McCormac - November 28, 2011

I was discussing this word pair with colleagues recently:

1. Peculiarly unsettling, as if of supernatural origin or nature; eerie.
2. So keen and perceptive as to seem preternatural.

1. Careful and shrewd, especially where one’s own interests are concerned.
2. Cautious in spending money; frugal.

Good one, Cathy! Thanks!

3. http://www.gofreshdesign.com/index.php/member/171166/ - June 7, 2012

And differing judgments serve but to declare That truth lies somewhere, if we knew but where….

Toll for the brave, The brave! that are no more: All sunk beneath the wave, Fast by their native shore….

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