11 Words and Phrases You Didn’t Know Had Opposites

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What’s the opposite of disgruntled? Chances are you’re thinking the answer should rightly be gruntled—but is that really a word you recognize? The problem here is that disgruntled, alongside the likes of uncouth, disheveled, distraught, inert, and intrepid, is an example of an unpaired word, namely one that looks like it should have an apparently straightforward opposite, but in practice really doesn’t.

Words like these tend to come about either when a prefixed or suffixed form of a word is adopted into the language while its root is not, or when the inflected or affixed form of a word survives, while its uninflected root form falls out of use. This was the case with disgruntled, which derives from an ancient Middle English word, gruntel, meaning “to grumble” or “complain,” which has long since fallen from use—although the gap left by disgruntled has led some dictionaries to list gruntled as a modern-day back-formation.

Some words and phrases, however, do have clear opposite forms, but they’re so rare or unfamiliar that they tend to remain forgotten. Eleven examples of precisely that are listed here.

1. AMBIDEXTROUS

If you’re ambidextrous then you’re equally skillful in using both hands (although perhaps not as successfully as President James Garfield). If you’re ambilevous however you’re equally clumsy using either hand—or, as Noah Webster defined it, “left handed on both sides.”

2. ANONYMOUS

Anonymous literally means “without a name.” Its opposite is onymous, which is typically used to refer to books, legal papers, artworks, musical compositions, and similar documents the authorship of which is known without doubt.

3. AUTOMATON

If an automaton is a machine capable of moving itself, then the opposite is called a heteromaton—a device that relies solely on external forces for movement.

4. CATASTROPHE

If a catastrophe is a sudden, unpredictable, and devastating event, then an equally sudden or unexpected event of sheer joy or good fortune is a eucatastrophe. This term was coined by Lord of the Rings author JRR Tolkien in 1944, who originally used it to describe a sudden or fortuitous event in the plot of a story that turns around the protagonist’s chances or prospects, and brings about the resolution of the narrative. 

5. DÉJÀ VU

Over the years, psychologists have identified a number of different phenomena similar to déjà vu (literally “already seen” in French). Among them is presque vu (“almost seen”), the tip-of-the-tongue feeling that you’re about to remember something you’ve forgotten; déjà vécu (“already experienced”), a particularly intense form of déjà vu that makes it almost impossible to discern the present from the past; and déjà visité (“already visited”), which describes a person’s surprising foreknowledge of a place they’ve never actually been to before—like unthinkingly knowing your way around a foreign town or city while on holiday. The opposite of déjà vu, however, is usually said to be jamais vu (“never seen”): so if déjà vu describes the eerie sensation that something new has actually taken place before, in the case of jamais vu a person believes that a situation that is actually very familiar and has happened before is entirely new.

6. DISTRESS

If you’ve been through a difficult or disturbing situation that left you upset or shaken up, then you’ve suffered distress. If you’ve been through a difficult or stressful situation that left you energized and compelled you to work or act better than you might otherwise do, then you’ve experienced eustress.

7. EUPHEMISM

If a euphemism involves the use of a politer word or phrase in place of a more distasteful or objectionable one, a dysphemism is the deliberate use of an impolite or unpleasant term in place of a perfectly inoffensive one. Dysphemism is often used for rhetorical effect, in order to shock or shake up an audience, or simply for comic effect.

8. OPTIMUM

Just as optimist is opposed to pessimist, optimum is the opposite of pessimum. So while the optimum conditions are those that are most favorable and suitable for doing something, the pessimum would be the worst or least favorable conditions.  

9. PLACEBO

Placebo literally means “I shall please” in Latin, and the placebo effect refers to an apparent improvement or amelioration in a patient’s condition despite them deliberately being given entirely ineffectual “dummy” medication. The opposite phenomenon is called the nocebo effect, which describes a patient reporting that they feel worse despite being given an entirely harmless treatment; it might sound like a made-up name, but nocebo actually means “I shall harm” in Latin.

10. POSTPONE

To bring a date forward in time rather than postponing it is to prepone it.

11. STOCKHOLM SYNDROME

Taking its name from a hostage situation that unfolded after a bank robbery in Sweden in 1973, Stockholm syndrome refers to the psychological phenomenon of hostages becoming sympathetic towards their captors. An opposite phenomenon is called Lima syndrome, in which it is the hostage-takers who gain sympathy for their hostages. And just like Stockholm syndrome, Lima syndrome too has its roots in a real-life hostage situation that occurred after a local militia stormed a party being held at the Japanese Embassy in the Peruvian capital in 1996.

11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes

A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
A woman sneezing, which in Middle English would have been called a fneze instead.
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The word irregardless might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no denying that if you were to use it in a sentence, you’d be perfectly understood—and that’s more than enough evidence for it to have been accepted into many dictionaries (albeit flagged as non-standard or informal), including Oxford Dictionaries, Merriam-Webster, and even the hallowed Oxford English Dictionary, which has so far been able to trace it back as far as 1912. So despite it having its origins in an error, and irregardless of what you might think of it, there’s no denying irregardless is indeed a word—and it’s by no means alone.

1. Expediate

Meaning “to hasten” or “to complete something promptly,” the verb expediate is thought to have been invented by accident in the early 1600s when the adjective form of expedite, meaning “ready for action” or “alert,” was misspelled in an essay by the English politician Sir Edwin Sandys (it was later corrected).

2. Culprit

There are several different accounts of the origin of culprit, but all of them seem to agree that the word was born out of a mistake. Back when French was still the language of the law in England in the Middle Ages (a hangover from the days of the Norman Conquest), the phrase Culpable, prest d’averrer nostre bille—literally “guilty, ready to prove our case”—was apparently the stock reply given by the Clerk of the Crown whenever a defendant gave a plea of not guilty. In the court records, this fairly long-winded phrase was often abbreviated just to cul. prit., and, as the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “by a fortuitous or ignorant running together of the two,” the word culprit was born.

3. Despatch

Despatch is a chiefly British English variant of dispatch, often used only in formal contexts like the name of the political despatch box in the House of Commons. The e spelling apparently began as a phonetic variation of the original I spelling, but after Samuel Johnson included it in his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, its use was legitimized and thrived in the 19th century. Because Johnson himself preferred the I spelling in his own writings, however, it's supposed that he included the e spelling by mistake and inadvertently popularized the error.

4. Nickname

Nicknames were originally called eke names, with the verb eke used here in the sense of “to make longer” or “to provide an addition.” Sometime in the 13th century, however, “an eke-name” was mistakenly interpreted as “a neke-name,” and the N permanently jumped across from the indefinite article an to the verb eke. The same error—known linguistically as “rebracketing” or “junctural metanalysis”—is responsible for nadders, numpires, and naprons all losing their initial Ns in the Middle English period.

5. Ammunition

Ammunition derives from a faulty division of the French la munition, which was incorrectly misheard as l'amonition by French soldiers in the Middle Ages, and it was this mistaken form that was borrowed into English in the 1600s.

6. Scandinavia

Scandinavia was originally called Scadinavia, without the first N, and is thought to take its name from an island, perhaps now part of the Swedish mainland, called Scadia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the extra N was added in error by the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, and has remained in place ever since.

7. Syllabus

If all had gone to plan in the history of the word syllabus, those two Ls should really be Ts: Syllabus was coined as a Latin misreading of an Ancient Greek word, sittybos, meaning “a table of contents.”

8. Sneeze

Oddly, sneeze was spelled with an F and not an S, fneze, in Middle English, which gives weight to the theory that it was probably originally coined onomatopoeically. At least one explanation of why the letter changed suggests that this F inadvertently became an S sometime in the 15th century due to continual misreadings of the long lowercase f as the old-fashioned long S character, ſ.

9. Ptarmigan

The ptarmigan is a bird of the grouse family, found in mountainous and high-latitude environments. Its bizarre name with its initial silent P is something of a mystery, as the original Scots word from which it derives, tarmachan, shows no evidence of it and there’s little reason why one should ever have to have been added to it—except, of course, if it were a mistake. The P spelling first emerged in the late 1600s, and is thought to have been a mistaken or misguided attempt to ally the name to the Greek word for a wing, pteron, and eventually this unusual P spelling replaced the original one.

10. Sherry

Sherry takes its name from the southern Spanish port of Xeres (now Jerez de la Frontera in Cádiz) and was originally known as vino de Xeres, or “wine of Xeres.” This name then morphed into sherris when sherry first began to be talked about in English in the early 17th century, but because of that final S, it didn’t take long for that to be misinterpreted as a plural. Ultimately, a mistaken singular form, sherry, emerged entirely by mistake in the early 1600s.

11. Pea

Another word that developed from a plural-that-actually-wasn’t is pea. One pea was known as a pease in Middle English, but because of that final “s” sound, pease was quickly misinterpreted as a plural, giving rise to a misguided singular form, pea, in the 17th century. The actual plural of pease in Middle English, incidentally, was pesen.

This list first ran in 2016.

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