Antonyms are words opposite in meaning, such as up & down, lost & found, hot & cold, young & old.
I usually write about homonyms, words that share the same sound and sometimes the same spelling but have different meanings, like tail & tale, pail & pale.
Homonyms are mischievous, ready to pull the pants down of the unwary writer. As in this newspaper headline: Woman Kicked By Horse Upgraded To Stable.
Antonyms are not as fun as those prankster homonyms. But antonyms are astonishingly useful.
Synonyms – words with similar meanings – are the more popular writer’s tool, but for my money the underrated antonym is just as handy, and much more interesting.
Antonyms help us understand the full meaning of words
Just knowing the definition doesn’t always mean you comprehend a word well enough to use it regularly and accurately.
An antonym can unlock the full meaning of a word. Know the flip side of a word and you’ll know when and how to use that word.
If I’m unfamiliar with a word and the dictionary has its antonym – a word I do know — that really nails down the new word’s meaning.
When I know the word backwards and forwards (I couldn’t resist throwing in those antonyms!), I’m much more likely to use this word when the opportunity comes up.
Two unfamiliar words I recently came across are dehort and exfiltrate.
My dictionary gave me the definitions, but it was the words’ antonyms – words I’m familiar with, exhort and infiltrate — that completed my understanding.
exfiltrate withdraw surreptitiously
Steve spotted one of his creditors and exfiltrated the trade show
infiltrate enter surreptitiously and gradually
The guard dozed off, allowing the sniper to infiltrate the compound
dehort warn people not to do something; dissuasion
Thou shalt not steal from Steve’s blog – it shows poor taste
exhort encourage people to do something; persuasion
Do onto others as you would have others do unto you
Antonyms help improve our vocabulary
Who knows how many words are in the English language? One million? Two million?
Of all those many words, antonyms stand out. Antonyms are easily recognizable because they fit a tight pattern – they’re opposites.
The human brain is wired to seek patterns. That’s why we see constellations in the random stars scattered across the night sky – Leo the Lion, Orion the Hunter, the Big Dipper. We remember things by association, by recognizing patterns.
It’s easier to remember words when their pattern, their relationship, sticks in our memory. With antonyms it’s easy to remember the relationship: opposites.
We all have common antonyms stuck together in our minds – back and forth, head over heels, right from wrong are a few examples.
The stickiness of antonyms works for me when I want to add a new word to my vocabulary. After I look up the definition, I find the word’s antonym. I remember my new word and its antonym as a pair.
Recent additions to my vocabulary: nadir & zenith, prone & supine, dorsal & ventral.
Antonyms spark creativity
Creativity is about taking old concepts, imagining connections, and coming up with something new.
You can’t be creative with lazy thinking. You have to shake things up, drop preconceptions, and turn things on their head to generate new insights, breakthroughs and innovations.
By looking at opposites, you can see things from a completely different angle.
Maybe it was an antonym that inspired Christopher Columbus to launch his voyage of discovery: People say the world is flat, but what if it were round? I wonder what’s over the horizon?
Antonyms are the antidote to lazy thinking.
“Night and Day” is a brainstorming exercise that uses antonyms. The purpose of the game is to improve upon a group’s ability to find multiple solutions to a problem and how to come up with them quickly. To begin, the group is to make a list of common terms. They then come up with the first antonym of each that they can think of. Next, they are to think of an additional three for each. Now that the group has practiced finding more than one solution, they can put this in place to tackle whatever problem is being worked on.
From Brainstorming Activities for Adults by Tyrone Scales
Want to be wealthy? First step on your road to riches is to study how to go broke, and then do the opposite. Odd, isn’t it, that negative thinking brings positive results.
If you’re hard pressed to think of ways to go broke, email me and I’ll tell you how I’ve handled my finances. It’s a road map to bankruptcy.
Use antonyms for powerful and pithy statements
The jarring contrast between two antonyms appearing in the same sentence telegraphs a concept, story, idea in stark black & white (two antonyms!).
Antonyms are storytellers: love & hate, acceptance & denial, courage & cowardice. The interplay of opposites sets up conflict, movement, direction, action, suspense.
With antonyms, in few words, you can express worlds about your subject.
I was lost but now I’m found / Was blind but now I see
Jesus said, “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last”
”Get busy living, or get busy dying,” advises author Steven King
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure
One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor
Every sweet has its sour; every evil its good (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Less is more
The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven (John Milton)
Many complain about not getting enough love;
but few about how little they’ve been giving (Dr. Mardy Grothe)
I could go on and on, but it’s time for the Antonym Awards!
The award for Most Antonyms Appearing in a Single Sentence goes to … the opening line of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens!
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Not every word has an antonym
Adjective words have the most antonyms. Second place goes to verbs. Most nouns refer to a specific thing — such as dolphin, bottle, France — so do not have antonyms.
Just as synonyms don’t have exactly the same meaning – each word has its own connotation, antonyms are not always exact opposites. A word that comes close to having the opposite meaning of another word is a near antonym.
“For example,” says the Merriam Webster Dictionary, “afraid is not so exactly opposite to courageous as cowardly is, but afraid and courageous certainly have markedly contrasting meanings and so are considered near antonyms.”
But we’re splitting hairs. As I’ve shown, antonyms are astonishingly useful – even half-ass antonyms.
Ironically, the word antonym is itself an antonym of the word synonym, and synonym (words with similar meanings) is the antonym of antonym (words with opposite meanings).
Finally, I dehort you: Never underestimate the power of the antonym to improve your vocabulary, writing, and creativity.
And I exhort you: Always look at the flip side of a word!
Click to see my favorite antonyms
Click to see famous books with antonyms in their titles
Yes, War and Peace is one of them
Click to see my all posts on Homonyms, Homophones & Confusingly Similar Words
I love homonyms, like antonyms, but I’m lukewarm about synonyms.
Here’s my rant on synonyms and the folly of using a thesaurus:
Cinnamon Finder. Wait … I Mean, Synonym Finder