Which words in the English language most reliably mean their opposites?

Hugo Lindgren tweeted:

Is there a word in the English language that more reliably means its opposite than ‘amicable’?

Twitter responses included: “moot,” “humbled,” “nice,” “my friend,” “nonplussed,” “cordial,” “priceless,” “tolerance,” “literally,” “spry,” “sincerely,” “honest,” “pal,” “sure,” and “”Fine” particularly when given as a one word answer.”

My favorite was “spry.”  Is there a word for such words?  Are there other examples?


Related: "I hope you're happy" has been wrung dry of all sincerity.


The difference is that "classy!" is usually used ironically while the examples typically aren't, at least intentionally.

I'm thinking of it's traditional pre-snark usage.
"She's a classy broad."
"Nice place. Real classy looking!"

I was going to say that classy!

"The Chinese government must do more to settle investor's fears."

"Need" also fits in that category.

How about "humbled"?

Humbled is the best - people don't seem to even remember what it means outside context of insincerity

'literally' seems like an obvious candidate.

Literally every time I hear someone say they are "humbled," it means the opposite.

In economics, "real".

Wikipedia gives us:

An auto-antonym (sometimes spelled autantonym), or contronym (also spelled contranym), is a word with a homograph (another word of the same spelling) which is also an antonym (a word with the opposite meaning). An auto-antonym is alternatively called an antagonym, Janus word (after the Roman god), enantiodrome, self-antonym, antilogy, or addad (Arabic, singular didd).[2][3] It is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings. This phenomenon is called enantiosemy,[4] enantionymy or antilogy.

That's not quite what Tyler means, though it's a start.

"To sanction" can mean "to permit" or "to punish."
"To screen" can mean "to show" or "to conceal."
"To cleave" can mean "to cling" or "to split apart."


Although I'm more interested in cases where a word and its opposite have the SAME meaning, like "duh" and "no duh."

Flammable and inflammable?

"transparent" when used in any business or political context

LOL. Indeed.

The Canadian Conservative government, in their first winning campaign, ran on a five part platform, one of which was "transparency". I searched long and hard for what "transparency" they could have referred to. The best I could find was the word "transparent" inserted into various legislation relating to foreign endeavours of Canadian mining firms, and never in any place where it actually tied them to any specific obligation.

"“This is the most transparent administration in history,” Obama said during a Google Plus “Fireside” Hangout."


However, in these type of uses it's not meant to mean the opposite. It's really just ideological propaganda to make the base feel good.

Glad I scanned the comments before posting, for once! Yes- "transparent" is the most obvious one missing in the list, in my opinion.

Having traveled in some dozens of countries, including quite a number in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asian I have learned to take an almost instant distrust of anyone who says "my friend". I don't mind someone who bluntly states "my uncle/friend has an x shop. You should come for tea and take a look" ... because their reaction to insisting that you have no interest in x almost always clarifies whether they are people worth having anything to do with. Spending any time whatsoever with people who say "my friend", however, is a surefire recipe for much hassle and time wasted on worthless ventures.

Closest thing I can think of for "a word for such words" would be "Orwellian", when language is manipulated to have its opposite meaning in context of government, but it is altogether unsatisfactory as a word in these cases. Bulls**T comes to mind, but that's not what you're looking for either. Cisco's suggestions seem on the mark, but in my mind they seem too much the stiff language of a grammarian to really capture the feeling of the matter.

"shared values"?

Don't forget "terrific". It is drawn from the same root as "terror" and means either large in size or something inducing horror. Essentially, it is supposed to be a synonym for "terrible".

But of course in practice, most English speakers -- at least, most American English speakers -- employ "terrific" to mean the exact opposite: something inducing pleasure or approval!

I found this out the hard way eating at a restaurant in Rome, where the waiter was excited to be serving Americans and insisted in practicing his English with us. When we finished our meal and he asked us how it was, I replied "Terrific!" And I will never forget the look of utter horror that swept his face.



Not quite an opposite, but in politics "we" often means "you."

Academics and other NPR guests use "we" to mean "some people not including me". "We often fear those not like us" means "you are a bunch of racists but through my brilliance and strong character, I am not one."

NPR hosts do use "we" in exactly that manner. And it's always clear by tone and context, that they don't mean themselves when they use "We" in that context.


Hilariously flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

An objection I have to most of the post and most of the comments is that the oppositeness only appears due to tone of voice when the word is spoken, making it clear that one is using a word sarcastically, when it is clear what its proper meaning is. It is the tone that says, "I am using this word to mean its exact opposite, even though we know what it is supposed to mean."

So, indeed the more serious cases are those like inflammable where the word really means its clear opposite without any hint of sarcasm or irony being behind this.


Also progressive.

Both of which are most frequently used by straw-manning right wingers.

"Pass on"

I'm going to pass on your resume. Management is really going to be impressed.

Thanks for applying, but I'm going to pass on your resume. This job just isn't suited.

"Yeah." vs. "Yeah, yeah."

You've opened the door to "Morgenbesser's Reply," and this account from the Bully Pulpit:

"In the early 1950′s, the esteemed Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin came to Columbia to present a paper about the structural analysis of language. He pointed out that, in English, although a double negative implies a positive meaning (i.e. “I’m not unlike my father…”), there is no language in which a double positive implies a negative. “Yeah, yeah,” scoffed Morgenbesser from the back of the auditorium."


"with all due respect"


"Nothing" when given as a one-word answer

The word for such words is of course "ironic," when it is used correctly, which it rarely is.

You mean like "rain on your wedding day"? /ducks

Not really. Irony is a device used for emphasis or humour ("By all means, keep minding your own business, it's not like I need help or anything"). The question is, presumably, about verbal cover-ups of unappealing realities ("amicable" in "Their marriage ended in an amicable divorce," not in "Yeah, their divorce was totally amicable, they didn't even punch each other in the face, at least not in public").

Maybe Marginal Revolution should have a crossover event with Language Log.

"The honourable gentleman"

Democratic Republic of

Or "Peoples Republic" run by an autocrat :)

The highest court in the Third Reich was called the People's Court. I think of that whenever I chance upon a court TV show of the same name.

"Sanction" means its opposite

"yeah, right"

"responsibility", as in "I take responsibility."

When Hilary said it the other day regarding the email ruckus, instead of meaning, "okay this is all my doing, and I deserve the pointed questions and criticism", it seemed to mean, "okay, now we can stop talking about it."


I have something similar with my wife. When I ask "do you want to do X this weekend", I'll get back one of "Yes", "No", and "Maybe".

"Yes" means just that. "No" means that's she'd prefer not to, but she'll tell me why, and we may be able to work around that.

But "maybe" is just a conversation ender. It turns out to mean "No, and we won't even discuss it".


This reminds me of a great Gandhi quote: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Way to out yourself as a hater!

In this context, I'd say "Reader" means its opposite.

Can I have your cloak?

obviously, clearly

Spry is great. I don't think I've ever seen it used outside the NYT society pages describing an 85 year old dowager. Amicable seems to have developed a new definition of not being engaged in *active* hostilities.

Add "handsome" as applied to women


"Sanction." Since its principal meanings are antonyms, it always means its opposite.

Are we talking about contranyms or sarcasm?

"I am confused" tends to mean "you are confused."

+1, particularly in university settings

Cleave may mean to split apart or to join together, which leads to mass confusion when there is a self-licking ice cream to cleave.

"working model"?

Doublespeak is the term I would have used for such words, but after Googling it, I am not sure any longer.

"With all due respect," especially when said by the British.

Frank ( platitudinous)
Subversive (fashionable)
Promising (stupid)
Sprightly (almost dead)
Youthful (ditto)
Mixed reviews (uniformly bad reviews)
Hedge fund ( a fund that does not hedge)
Svelte (obese)
Ethnic cleansing (messy)

Not exactly the same thing, but - "dialectical" words - words that mean two opposite things. "Rise" - where something comes from, where it goes to (the first sense is mostly obsolete now, but cf Locke talking about the "rise" i.e. origins of government). "Breeding" - nature or nurture? Jay Fliegelman's book DECLARING INDEPENDENCE may be of interest (also of course Raymond Williams, Keywords).

("Nimble" could probably be added to "spry." I also think there's a whole cluster of words around pride and humility that have this quality - i.e. "I'm so proud of you" as a slapdown in certain circumstances, perhaps because of the assertion it implies about relative power/who's in a position to approve....)

In what context does "rise" means "where something goes to"?


"Invest", when used to signify "government spending that I support". Our local newspaper just covered the approval of municipal funding for a new skateboard park, and one of the interviewees expressed his gratification that Mudville was investing in its skaters and BMXers. Can't wait for those dividends to start rolling in...


correct answer. can't believe it hasn't come up yet



Especially when uttered by someone trying to sell you some religion/morality.

Nope wait I sort of misunderstood the post so peruse's absence makes sense (although the post is sort of internally inconsistent between words that are sarcastically used, words that are misused, words that are used for political reasons, etc)

"immigration reform"

"culturally vibrant"

No one who says "trendy" can claim to be so


"Sick" as a compliment.

"Lovely" in British usage.

Not quite the same, but reminded me of this quiz David Foster Wallace would give his students:


The goal being to figure out that the words are all self-contradictory.




For the most part.

"Politically incorrect"
"Tells it like it is"

Nah, don't agree with these.

"Conversation". "Oppression". "Jew".

Okay, if threads are going to be made with pagination, make it with one to two hundred comments per page. 80-something is way too few.

I've noticed that "drug use" and "drug abuse" are used interchangeably in certain prohibitionist contexts. This might be closer to the related class of examples where two words that (structurally) ought to be opposites are treated as having the SAME meaning.

Oh, also, "save", as in the bizarre sentence "The more you spend, the more you save!" which I actually saw on a billboard advertising a sale.

Huh. Maybe "sale" too. God, does _anything_ we say in English make any damn sense?

Awesome. Used to mean something like "That which generated feelings of awe, religious respect, fear" but now means, well, nothing, really.

Any words when they are titles of magazines. "Cosmopolitan" "Playboy"

"God Bless YOU!" is a nice guiltless tricky way of saying F-U!

Could care less!

In these days trading is the perfect way to make money. With the help of Superior Trading System I learned successfully how to trade. You can Google them to learn more.

Saying low odds, meaning low probability.

"Awful", that hamburger was not full of awe.


It means 'to destroy a small portion of something' (literally, 'one-tenth'), but the lion's share of the time, people use it to mean 'to destroy all of something'.

Also, 'lion's share'.

People use it to mean 'most of something', but it actually means 'all of something'.

I could care less about this post.


Quantum as in Quantum leap.


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