Flip Side of a Word: Antonyms

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
  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


Homonyms, Homophones, and Other Confusingly Similar Words

Since I’ve been doing this feature on my blog, I’ve really started to notice homonyms, homophones–even antonyms and synonyms, in everyday conversations and on the radio (I listen all day and into the evening to my local public radio stations, KPCC Pasadena and KVCR San Bernardino, and talk radio KFI Los Angeles ).

It’s amazing what you discover when you listen carefully to a person’s choice of words. What is it they’re really trying to say? Especially when someone is speaking spontaneously and not from a prepared statement.

When moving quickly, sometimes the mind will slip on a word. Reminds me that I should explore malapropisms in my next post.

If you find yourself noticing homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words, please leave a comment with your favorites.

compleat kuhm-pleet (adjective)  Highly skilled and accomplished in all aspects; complete
complete kuhm-pleet (adjective)  Having all parts or elements; lacking nothing; whole

exercise ek-ser-sahyz (verb)  To use; to exert oneself physically or mentally
exorcise ek-sawr-sahyz (verb) To expel, as an evil spirit

gouache goo-ahsh; Fr. gwash (noun)  A technique of painting with opaque watercolors prepared with gum
gauche gohsh (adjective)  Lacking social grace or sensitivity; awkward; crude

liter lee-ter (noun)  A unit of volume equal to 1000 cubic centimeters or 1 cubic decimeter (1.0567 quarts)
leader lee-der (noun)  A guiding or directing head, as of an army, movement, or political group

See my master list of all the homonyms, homophones, and other confusingly similar words I’ve posted to date

Two interesting antonyms

Regulation vs. Dysregulation
(noun) a law, rule, or other order prescribed by authority, esp. to regulate conduct
dysregulation (medical) impairment of a physiological regulatory mechanism
People with Borderline Personality Disorder often experience emotional dysregulation.

OK, dysregulation is a stretch, you don’t hear it very often. Actually, you never hear it outside of medical school. I heard the word “dysregulation” for the first time last week at a NAMI meeting (check out my blog postings for more on the National Alliance on Mental Illness) when dysregulation was mentioned in a talk about borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD, a form of mental illness, explains why there are so many really annoying people among us. BPD is biologically based, so those people can’t help being assholes, and you have to grit your teeth and forgive them for they know not what they do.

Utopia vs. Dystopia
(noun) any visionary system of political or social perfection
dystopia (noun) a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding
I don’t know if California has ever been a utopia, maybe before any Europeans showed up, but it sure is headed towards a dystopia, thanks to our dysfunctional “leaders” in Sacramento.

Other interesting “U” words
I like browsing through the u’s in my dictionary. First, it doesn’t take long because there are relatively few words beginning with “U,” nothing like the A’s, M’s, S’s, and T’s, but more to offer than the Q’s, X’s, and Z’s. And second, a lot of intriguing words start with “U.”

In a recent visit, I stumbled on “ultra” and its variations…
ultra going beyond others or beyond true limits; from the Latin “ultra,” beyond.
ultraconservative extremely conservative
ultrahigh frequency a radio frequency between 300 and 3000 megahertz
ultralightultralight a very light recreational aircraft capable of carrying only one person
ultramarine a very bright deep blue color
ultramodern extremely or excessively modern in idea, style or tendency
ultramontane 1: of or relating to countries or peoples beyond the mountains 2: favoring greater or absolute supremacy of papal over national or diocesan authority in the Roman Catholic Church ( I actually had reason to look up “ultramontane” last month as I was reading a book about the Spanish Inquisition).
ultrapure of the utmost purity
ultrashort having a wavelength below 10 meters; short duration
ultrasonic having a frequency too high to be heard by the human ear
ultraviolet having a wavelength shorter than those of visible light and longer than those of X rays
ultra vires beyond the scope of legal power of authority

Then there’s all the words that “un” unravels the base word behind it, my favorites being “unlikely” and “unbelievable.”  Check it out, and let me know your ultrafavorite “un”-prefixed word. “Unforgettable” anyone?


Ultra Underpants, Unbelievable!