Column: Sowing pseudo antonym confusion


I have a new friend who lived in Kenya for most of his life. He speaks about a dozen languages conversationally. Of all of them, he says English makes the least sense. I believe him; I have to because I only know one language. Technically, I know enough Spanish to make a 3-year-old laugh, but that’s just because I know Spanish words for animals, colors and body parts.

One of the reasons English confuses so many is because of the existence of pseudo antonyms (or false antonyms). These are words that sound and look like they should be the opposite of each other but aren’t. In fact, some pseudo antonyms more closely resemble synonyms!

The classic pseudo antonym is flammable/inflammable. These two words both mean “not flammable.” It makes no sense why inflammable means not flammable, but here we are. I suppose nonflammable is the word to use to indicate the opposite of flammable.

To continue fanning the flames of pseudo antonyms, consider terminate/exterminate. As we all know from “The Terminator,” the word “terminate” means “to bring to an end.” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robotic death machine from the future wanted to bring to an end the life of Sarah Connor. However, the word “exterminate” means “get rid of by destroying.” The actual antonym for these words is “interminate,” which means “having no end.”

Here’s another pair of pseudo antonyms that share nearly the same definition: valuable/invaluable. In April 2021, a signed LeBron James rookie card sold at auction for $5.2 million. You could say it was valuable! While something “valuable” is a thing you can put a price on, something that is “invaluable” is so valuable you can’t put a price on it. Many people consider my friendship to be invaluable, and I can’t blame them.

Not all pseudo antonyms more closely resemble synonyms. In fact, we find plenty of English words that appear to be opposites, but really don’t have “definitive” relationships at all, aside from sharing most of the same letters. It’s like when someone finds out I’m from Oklahoma, so he asks me if I know a guy who went to college with him who was from the Tulsa area.

Some of these non-associative false opposites include greed/agreed, gust/disgust, fancy/infancy, liberate/deliberate, liver/deliver, pale/impale, sign/design, trophy/atrophy, and concrete/discrete.

The next time you encounter someone whose English isn’t flawless like yours, cut them some slack; don’t excommunicate them just because they can’t communicate as well as you.