10 Pairs of Similar-Looking Near Antonyms

By Mark Nichol

Many pairs of words, often but not always etymologically related, can be easily confused for each other though they mean almost the opposite. Distinguish carefully between these odd couples:

Contemptible: deserving of contempt, or despicable (“Their effort to suddenly kiss up to her once she inherited money was contemptible.”)
Contemptuous: demonstrating contempt (“His contemptuous dismissal of the idea was inexcusably rude.”)
(Both words stem from the Latin contemnere, “to despise.”)

Flare: a signal light or a similar literal or figurative eruption (The shipwrecked sailor fired a signal flare to attract attention from the passing vessel.”)
Flair: talent, or style (“He’s shown a remarkable flair for the craft.”)
(Flare has uncertain origin, but it is not likely related to flair, from the Latin fragrare “odor.”)

Gourmet: an expert on, or one who appreciates the nuances of, food or drink (“His reputation as a gourmet rests on his familiarity with all the best restaurants.”)
Gourmand: a person enthusiastic about good food and drink; glutton (“My neighbor the gourmand has pretensions of being knowledgeable about wine.”)
(Gourmet is from the French grommet, “boy servant,” perhaps itself based on English groom; gourmand derives from the Middle French gourmant. In French, gourmand remains a close synonym of gourmet, with no negative connotation.)

Incredible: inspiring disbelief, extraordinary (“The fact that she had survived the ordeal was incredible.”)
Incredulous: disbelieving (“I looked at him with a gaze of incredulous wonder.”)
(Both words are from the antonym of the Latin credibilis, “credible.”)

Mantel: a shelf or supporting structure above a fireplace (“She approached the fireplace and placed the candelabra on the marble mantel.”)
Mantle: a literal or figurative cloak, covering, or layer (“A mantle of authority lay on the chieftain’s broad shoulders.”)
(Both words derive from the Latin mantellum.)

Material: matter, or components (“She brushed up against an object covered with soft material.”)
Materiel: supplies and equipment, especially used by a specific organization (“The army found itself running low on materiel as its supply lines were cut.”)
(Both words come from the French materiel.)

Ordinance: order or law, or established usage (“The ordinance went into effect on January 1.”)
Ordnance: artillery, or weapon-related military supplies (“The fort was equipped with enough ordnance to withstand several regiments.”)
(Both words stem from the Latin ordinare, to put into order.”)

Temerity: recklessness (“My assistant had the temerity to suggest that I didn’t know how to do my job!”)
Timidity: lacking in courage or boldness (“Her timidity about approaching him resulted in another missed opportunity.”)
(Temerity is from the Latin temere, “blindly”; timidity derives from the Latin timere, “fear.”)

Troop: a military unit or similar group (“The outnumbered troop retreated in the face of overwhelming firepower.”)
Troupe: a theatrical group or other collection of entertainers (“Stratford was often visited by traveling troupes of professional actors.”)
(The first word is a variant of the second, a Middle French word meaning “company” and related to the Germanic thorp, “village,” which survives in English place names as spelled or, more often, as thorpe.)

Venal: mercenary, corrupt (“His approach to business is purely venal.”)
Venial: forgivable, excusable (“I consider envy a venial sin.”)
(Venal derives from Latin the venum, “sale”; venial comes from the Latin venia, “pardon.”)

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18 Responses to “10 Pairs of Similar-Looking Near Antonyms”

  • Esteban

    Great list! Couldn’t the second example for contemptible/contemptuous work with either word, though? “His contemptible dismissal…” indicates the dismissal itself was deserving of contempt. “His contemptuous dismissal…” modifies his dismissal of the idea as scornful. (Be easy on me–I’m still very young in my career as a writer.)

  • Mark Nichol

    Estaban:

    Yes, both contemptible and contemptuous work with dismissal, but each phrase has a distinct meaning: A contemptible dismissal is one that the observer perceives as despicable. A contemptuous one is one in which the actor, the person doing the dismissing, deliberately performs with contempt.

    Thus, either word can be used to fill in the blank in the sentence “His [blank] dismissal of the idea was inexcusably rude,” but the resulting sentences vary in meaning.

  • Cindy Cotter

    cavalry/calvary

  • Frank Elliott

    Your inclusion of troop/troupe brings to mind one of the more common errors of usage found in the news columns: The use of troop as a synonym for soldier, as in, “A detachment of 50 troops remained to secure the outpost.”

  • Joshua

    Not to nitpick but I think you used “Antonyms” in place on “Homonyms”. Take (for example) Mantle vs. Mantel. A shelf is not the opposite of a cloak.

  • Alexandre Piccolo

    great post!

  • Mark Nichol

    Joshua:

    You’re correct. The headline reflects the original focus of this post, but I found few examples to populate it. When I returned later and completed the post with word pairs that were similar but didn’t adhere to the title topic, I didn’t change the headline or the lead paragraph.

  • Krissy Brady, Writer

    Again, wonderful post! I really appreciate the time you take with these posts–they are great literary exercises for me as I work towards finishing my WIP. 🙂

  • Kathryn

    Yes, this was an excellently entertaining post–and a good reminder. Another pair of related words that don’t mean quite the same thing is continual/continuous. Although, actually, one can substitute continual for continuous–but not the other way around.

  • Todd Proffit

    Informative post. Nice work.

  • venqax

    Since you are including simliar sounding pairs like affect and effect, I would submit insure/ ensure While the first is for the most part properly limited to the purchase of a policy to compensate for loss or damage, the second means to “make sure” something happens properly to begin with. Nonetheless, insure seems to get used very commonly in double duty to mean both. We always being given something to “insure our comfort” or to “insure safety” and to “insure your stay is pleasant”. I wonder if a lot of people are simply unaware of the word or ensure.

  • Ropp

    An ESL person. No any question. However. I would like to tell you that I ‘m very happy to have this web by friend of mine . Thanks.

  • Collin

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

    I have heard people use “adept” when they mean to use “inept” and vice versa.

  • Caylith Creator

    I keep a running list of such words on my Mac’s sticky notes. Here are a few I’ve spotted recently when reading various blogs: comity/calumny; inveigh/inveigle.

    Question: is there a grammatical term for the kind of writing mistake that encloses the error within the word itself? An example would be one I found a few days ago–“idiotcy.”

    Great blog. Keep up the excellent work.

  • Mark Nichol

    Caylith:

    I don’t know of any such coinage, but in a similar vain (er, vein), look up “Muphry’s (sic) law.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Self-correction: [sic] — brackets, not parentheses, and only the word itself in parentheses.

  • Mark Nichol

    Only the word itself in italics. (I’m having one of those days.)

  • venqax

    Somewhat along the lines of Caylith Creator’s question regarding “idiotcy”. I’ve been looking for 2 without luck so far:

    A word for a person who dresses the same all the time. E.g. Mishio Koku (sp.) the TV-ominipresent Japanese physicist who always wears all-black; shoes, pants belt, button-down collared shirt and sometimes leather jacket. Or the OCD TV detective character Adrian Monk.

    Secondly, a term for a person who eats the same diet all the time. I’ve personally known a couple of people like this. Exact same menu 3 meals every day: bowl of cornflakes, can of tuna, 2 pieces of bread, chicken breast, baked potato, X 365, etc. It brings to mind the dietary habits of domesticated animals, but that isn’t really fair– to the animals. Anything? I mean you can always pull out the old Greek and Latin dicationaries and make up something, but anything off the shelf?

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