5 Words and Their Nonantonymic Antonyms

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Some words appear to be antonyms of other words because they consist of one of those words preceded by an antonymic prefix. However, the sense of the prefixed word may be only tangentially related to the root word. Here are some examples of such mismatches:

1. Apprehension/misapprehension: The most common sense of apprehension is of foreboding (“A cloud of apprehension enveloped her”), and it refers to capture (“The apprehension of the suspect followed quickly”), but it also means “perceiving or comprehending,” and it is this sense that applies in the antonym, which means “misunderstanding.” (The root word, apprehend, is from the Latin word for “to seize or grasp”; comprehend is related, as is reprehend — literally, “to hold back from grasping” — which means “to disapprove.”)

2. Alliance/misalliance: An alliance (the root word, ally, stems from the Latin word for “to bind”) is an association between two or more parties. A misalliance is technically defined in the literal antonymic sense of an inappropriate union, but it is seldom used that way; it usually refers to a marriage between mismatched partners. (The French forebear, mesalliance, is even more specific in denoting a person’s romantic liaison with someone beneath them in social standing.)

3. Demeanor/misdemeanor: Demeanor refers to someone’s manner or behavior, but misdemeanor is a legal term for a minor crime (though it can also generically mean simply “an offense”). By the way, demean, from the Latin word for “lead,” is the rarely used verb form of the former. The demean we usually employ is a homonym meaning “to degrade or put down” (from the German word for “to have in mind”).

4. Fortune/misfortune: Fortune (from the Latin word for “chance” or “luck”) has three distinct meanings: “wealth,” “destiny,” or “luck.” Misfortune is antonymic only to the latter sense; it does not refer to a dearth of riches or an absence of fate.

5. Giving/misgiving: Giving is the act of offering something. A misgiving, however, is a doubtful feeling about an impending event. Both words derive from a Scandinavian ancestor, with a Latin near cognate that means “to have.” The rare verb form misgive means “to be fearful” or “to suggest fear or doubt.”

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7 thoughts on “5 Words and Their Nonantonymic Antonyms”

  1. It is important to remember that the prefix mis- has multiple definitions. In addition to the antonymic “not,” it can also mean “bad, wrong or unfavorable.” This is the sense in which the prefix is used in the examples above. So we should not assume that a word beginning with mis- is the antonym of its root; to do so may be to misconstrue the author’s intent

  2. I also think “flammable” and “inflammable” fit this category.
    Not only are not antonyms, like admissible/inadmissible. or valid/invalid, but they are synonyms.


  3. How about “famous” and “infamous?” Except you are only using “mis-” words. Hey! What about “take” and “mistake”? 🙂

  4. Brian:

    Yes, I focused on mis- for this post, but mistake didn’t even occur to me — the mis/take origin isn’t obvious, just as with pains/taking.

  5. I figured take and mistake ARE antonyms.

    “Take” in the sense ‘to accept as true’ and “mistake” as in ‘to wrongly accept as true.’

    “I’d TAKE your word for it, but that would be a MISTAKE.”

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