Page revised on January 1, 1999

This is a word I made up to describe a single word that has meanings that contradict each other. My derivation of the word antagonyms is described below.

Example of an Antagonym:

A current example would be "BAD". There is the normal meaning and the slang meaning of "good" (sometimes pronounced baad for emphasis). Although I prefer words in which the antithetical definitions are listed in common dictionaries, I will accept well-known slang examples.

As pointed out by Rex Stocklin (in list of acknowledgments below, see {T}), a number of antagonyms result from use of the prefix "re-". The meaning "again" may conflict with other meanings. We will continue to add these words to the list as we receive them.

The (numbers) below indicate my reference sources; the {letters} acknowledge contributors. Both are listed after the following sections.


Anabasis: A military advance vs. A military retreat (3) {C}

Anon : Immediately [Archaic] or soon vs. Later (3) {M}

Anxious: Full of mental distress because of apprehension of danger or misfortune [in effect, seeking to avoid] (We were anxious about the nearby gunshots.) vs. Eager or looking forward to (Until you returned, I was anxious to see you.) (1)

Apparent: Not clear or certain (For now, he is the apparent winner of the contest.) vs. Obvious (The solution to the problem was apparent to all.) (1) {I}

Assume: To actually have (To assume office) vs. To hope to have ("He assumed he would be elected.") (3) {M}

Avocation: A hobby vs. a regular occupation [and one could say it's a triple antagonym if you agree that the archaic meaning of "a distraction" is the opposite of working (even at a hobby) and if you agree that the obsolete meaning of "a calling away" takes you away from (the opposite of participating in) your hobbies, work, and even your distractions!] (1)

Awful: Extremely unpleasant, ugly vs. Awe-inspiring [typically, a feeling of admiration] (1)

Bad: See above

Bound: Moving ("I was bound for Chicago") vs. Unable to move ("I was bound to a post", or less literally, "I was bound to my desk") (3) {S}

Buckle: to hold together (e.g. buckle your belt) vs. to fall apart (e.g., buckle under pressure) {AQ}

Bull: A solemn edict or mandate vs. Nonsense or worthless information (3) {M}

Chuff: Elated vs. Unhappy (hinted at in 1) {M}

Cite, Citation: For doing good (such as military gallantry) vs. for doing bad (such as from a traffic policeman) (1)

Cleave: To adhere tightly vs. To cut apart (1) {A}

Clip: to attach vs. to cut off (1) {AH}{AS}

Cool: positive sense (cool web-sites) vs. negative sense(cool reception). {AA}

Comprise: To contain entirely vs. To be included in ("The United States comprises 50 states"; "The 50 states comprise the United States") [Some will argue with both uses, including me; however, both uses have become commonplace and some sources list both without comment.] (1) {U}

Counterfeit: [Archaic] a legitimate copy vs. a copy meant to deceive{Y}

Cut: get in (as in line or queue) vs. get out (as in a school class) {T}

Dust: To remove dust vs. To apply dust (as in fingerprinting) {H}

Effectively: in effect (doing the equivalent of the action but not the real thing) vs. with effect (doing the action and doing it well) [Contrast "he is effectively lying" (colloquial?) with "he is lying effectively"] {AD}

Enjoin: To order someone to do something vs. To stop someone from doing something [such as in law by an injunction] (1) {D}

Fast: Moving rapidly vs. Unable to move ("I was held fast to my bed.") (3) {S}

Fix: to restore to function (fixing the refrigerator) vs. to make non-functional (fixing the dog) {AZ}

Fearful: Causing fear vs. Being afraid (1) {A}

Goods: [Slang] good things vs. bad things ("I have the goods from the warehouse robbery, but I'm worried the police have the goods on me.") {T}

Hysterical: Being overwhelmed with fear [in some cases] vs. Being funny (1)

Incorporate: When a village is incorporated, it is formed, but when it is incorporated into a city, the village is destroyed {O}

Inflammable [a pseudo-antagonym!]: Burns easily vs. [the incorrect assumption by many that the prefix in- makes it mean:] Does not burn [Only the first definition is correct; the risk of confusion has removed this word from gasoline trucks!] (4) {J}

Last: Just prior vs. final (My last book will be my last publication) {Y}

Lease, Let, Rent: [in essence] To loan out for money vs. To "borrow" for money (1) {K}

Left: To remain vs. to have gone (Of all who came, only Fred's left. [Does it mean he's the only one who still remains or that he's the first to depart?]) {AB}

Let: [Archaic] To hinder vs. To allow (1) {K}

License: Liberty or permission to do something vs. Undue or excessive freedom or liberty (1) {K}

Literally: Precisely vs. often corruptly used to mean "figuratively" (As in: "There were literally millions of people at that party."). Our correspondent writes: Many people think this is an error, albeit a common one; but I think "Literally millions of people" isn't so much error as a form of hyperbole; the trouble is that the literal meaning of "literally" is, among other things, "not hyperbolically." {AF}

Livid: Pale, ashen vs. dark gray-blue (and sometimes corrupted to mean bright red!) (1) {AW}

Mad: carried away by enthusiasm or desire vs. carried away by hatred or anger (3) {AK}

Moot: [a slight stretch here] A moot point is one that is debatable, yet is also of no significance or has been previously decided, so why debate it? (1) {K}

Overlook: to pay attention to, to inspect ("We had time to overlook the contract.") vs. to ignore (1) {AN}

Oversight: Watchful and responsible care vs. An omission or error due to carelessness (1) {E}

Peruse: Read in a casual way, skim (To peruse the Sunday paper) vs. to read with great attention to detail or to study carefully (To peruse a report on financial conditions). {AR}

Policy: Required activity without exception (University policy) vs. An optional course of action (our government's policy regarding the economy) {K}

Populate: To decimate the population (obsolete use) vs. to increase the population {AP}

Practiced: Experienced, expert (I am practiced in my work) vs. Inexperienced effort (The child practiced coloring.) (1)

Prescribe: To lay down a rule vs. To become unenforceable (3) {D}

Presently: Now vs. after some time {BB}

Quite: Completely vs. Not completely (e.g., quite empty [totally empty]; quite full [not completely full, just nearly so]) (3) {M}

Ravel: to disentangle or unravel vs. to tangle or entangle (1) {X}

Recover: hide away (cover again) vs. bring out [hyphenated] (The dinosaur bones were exposed by the flood but then re-covered with dirt, hiding them again; centuries later, the paleontologists recovered them by removing the dirt.) {T}

Refrain: In song, meaning to repeat a certain part vs. To stop (Please refrain from using bad language) {AO}

Release: let go vs. hold on (lease the property again) [hyphenated as re-lease] {T}

Replace: Take away (replace the worn carpet) vs. Put back (replace the papers in the file) {T}

Repress: hold back vs. put forth (press again) [hyphenated] {T}

Reprove: rebuke (reprove a colleague's work) vs. support (re-prove a scientist's theory) {T}

Reservation: what you make when you know where you want to go vs. what you have when you're not sure if you want to go

Reside: to stay put vs. [Slang] to change places (change teams) [hyphenated as re-side] [N.B.: This is also a heteronym!] {T}

Resign: to quit a contract vs. to sign the contract again [hyphenated as re-sign] {T} [N.B.: This is also a heteronym!]

Restive: refusing to move (forward) (a restive horse) vs. Restless (moving around) (1) {M}

Restore [in the following use]: The painting was said to be a fake, so the museum re-stored it in the warehouse. When it was later found to be real, the museum restored it to its place in the gallery. {T}

Riot: Violent disorder vs. Revelry {Consider what is meant when one says, "It was a riot!") (1)

Rival: An opponent vs. (Archaic) A companion or associate (3) {O}

Rocky: Firm, steadfast vs. tending to sway (e.g., a rocky shelf) {S}

Root: To establish (The seed took root.) vs. To remove entirely (usually used with "out", e.g., to root out dissenters) {AG}

Sanction: Support for an action (They sanctioned our efforts.) vs. A penalty for an action (The Congressman was sanctioned for inappropriate behavior.) (1) {D} {O}

Sanguine: (Now poetic) Causing or delighting in bloodshed [according to contributor, also describes a person worked up into a bloody rage] vs. A person hopeful or confident of success [essentially someone calm about something] (2) {B}

Scan: to examine closely vs. to look over hastily (1) {S} {AI}

Screwed: [Slang, vulgar] Had a good experience (We screwed around all night.) vs. To have a bad experience (I was screwed by that cheater.) {T}

Secreted: Having put out, released vs. Placed out of sight (1) [N.B.: This word is also a heteronym!]

Shank: (Informal) The early part of a period of time (It was just the shank of the evening when the party began.) vs. (Informal) The latter part of a period of time (It was the shank of the evening when the party ended.) (1)

Shop: To search with the intent to buy ("I shopped for a book at several stores.") vs. To search with the intent to sell ("I shopped my manuscript to several publishers.") {R}

Sick: unpleasant (A sick joke) vs. wonderful (Slang: That sportscar is really sick!) {AE}

Skin: to cover with a skin vs. to remove outer covering or skin (1) {I} {P}

Strike out: An ending, as in "The batter struck out." vs. A beginning, as in "I thought it was time to strike out on my own." (1) {L} Also, a strike in bowling occurs when there is complete contact between ball and wood (of the pins), whereas a strike in baseball occurs when there is complete absence of contact between ball and wood (of the bat). {W} Also, to strike causes stoppage of work whereas in the theater to strike is to work on the set, lighting, etc. {AX}

Terrific: (Informal) Extraordinarily good vs. Causing terror (1)

Transparent: Easily seen ("His motives were transparent.") invisible {AL}

Trim: To add things to (trim a Christmas tree) vs. or take pieces off (trim hair) {AT}{AU}

Antagonistic phrases, usually informal

These are phrases that (probably through corruption) have come to mean the opposite of what they should mean if taken literally.

All downhill from here: Things are going to get better vs. things are going to get worse {AU}{AV}

Could care less: (Used as if it were synonymous with "could not care less.") One has no interest at all {G}

Fought with: Fought on the same or opposite sides (The Finns fought with the Germans in WW II.) {AW}

Like never before: totally amateurish vs. with great skill (She's dancing like she's never danced before.) {F}

Look out for: see Watch out for

Take care of: Look out for and nurture vs. get rid of or kill (As heard on NPR by commentator Diane Roberts discussing the meaning of saying "we're going to take care of Timothy McVeigh [convicted bomber]) {contributed by A}

Near miss: A hit close enough to achieve the effect vs. narrowly falling short of the objective {X}

Restrict access to: ("To restrict access to adult movies, please contact the front desk.") To allow access only to vs.

to disallow access to {AM}

Steep learning curve: To most, this means "difficult to learn" or "taking a long time to learn," but can also mean "easy to learn, taking a short time." (I think some workers mean the former when they refer to a process that has a steep learning curve, and to the latter when referring to a person who masters the process with a steep learning curve. This antagonym may be controversial.) {AP}

Tell me about it: I want to know more vs. I already know. {AY}

Watch out for: A positive statement meaning try to find or partake of vs. A negative statement meaning avoid (Watch out for this movie.)

Here's an interesting phrasing: Football coach Lloyd Carr of the #1-ranked University of Michigan Wolverines, after finishing undefeated (11-0) with a victory over Ohio State, explaining his preseason view of the team's schedule: "There wasn't one game that we knew we couldn't win, but we also realized there wasn't one we couldn't lose." [The Ann Arbor News, November 23, 1997, p. D1.] [In the Detroit Free Press the next day (p. D4), the last phrase is quoted as "…there wasn't one we could lose."] Coach, don't think we don't know what you mean (!), and your multiple double-negatives rate a place on our webpage!

Opposonyms? Pseudopposites? Pairs of phrases, usually informal, -- how can they mean the same?

Burned up, Burned down: (Both mean destroyed.) {BA}

Fat chance; slim chance: (Both mean "not too likely") {N}

Cool; hot: (Both mean wonderful [Slang], e.g., when applied to a car)

Confusing words (should we call them "confusonyms"?)

Biweekly (Bimonthly, Biyearly): twice a week (month, year) vs. every two weeks (month, years) (According to reference 1, the former is used "loosely") {Y} {AJ}

Daily: 5 days a week vs. 6 days a week vs. 7 days a week (for example, the "daily" newspaper) {Q}

Every day: As in "daily" above, one often hears on the radio "Listen to our morning show every day" to mean Monday through Friday

To have or to have not

These terms are confusing and have opposite meanings depending on usage.

Seeded: Clouds are seeded (something is added) to produce rain vs. grapes which are seeded (the seeds are removed). {AA}. Also, if one removes the seeds from cherries they are pitted but if one sows grass seed in the yard, the yard is seeded. {AC}

Shelled: Having the shell removed (shelled pecans) vs. Enclosed in a shell (tiny, shelled marine animals) (1) {V}

Skinned: See skin, above.

Pitted? Pitted olives are olives with the pits taken out, but pitted skin is skin with pits in it! {BC}

Definitions adapted from

  1. Random House Dictionary of English Language Unabridged Edition
  2. Oxford English Dictionary, 2d edition
  3. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
  4. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition (Electronic version).

Acknowledgments for antagonyms sent in by:

{A} Pam, Steve, Noah, and Dara Smith of College Station, Texas

{B} Betsy Foss of Ann Arbor, Michigan

{C} Nicholas Downey

{D} James Ellis of Ann Arbor, Michigan

{E} Jane Rubin

{F} Gary Meyer


{H} Nina Gupta, University of Michigan graduate and professor at University of Arkansas; sent in by Jonathan L. Johnson, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas

{I} Mark Israel of San Diego, California; some or all may have originated with Richard Lederer; to link to the complete list, see below.

{J} Josef Faulkner of Fort Pierce, Florida

{K} Martin L. Levine, Professor of Law, Gerontology, Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA

{L} David Beagan, Warren, Michigan

{M} Gwyn Hughes Clark, England

{N} Antonio Vigario

{O} Howard Roger, c/o Russ Roger, Canada

{P} Peter Mucha

{Q} John Rothchild

{R} Al Whitehurst, Tucson, Arizona

{S} Steven Smith and his father, Howard B. Smith, Jr.

{T} Rex Stocklin, Marina del Rey, California

{U} Robert Orenstein

{V} Mark Zelcer

{W} Walter Gregson Vaux, Murrysville, Pennsylvania

{X} Charlie Rowe

{Y} Jay Griffith

{Z} Steven Burns

{AA} Helen Midgley

{AB} Michael Morgan

{AC} Maurice Anders

{AD} Joan Hartman (wife of {Q})

{AE} Adrian Weiss, Melbourne, Australia

{AF} Eugene Volokh, Los Angeles

{AG} Servio Medina, De Land, Florida

{AH} Bill Scott

{AI} Ken Wais

{AJ} Eric Eros

{AK} Satish Pai

{AL} Mark S Blumberg, MD, Oakland, California

{AM} Marnie Holmes, West Pennant Hills, NSW, Australia

{AN} John Shaw-Rimmington, Jr

{AO} Leslie K. Koller <

{AP} Todd C Ames, Minnesota

{AQ} Pickle, New York/Montana

{AR} Frank R Walmsley

{AS} Henry Fletcher

{AT} Marianne C. Votaw, Charlottesville, VA

{AU} Jon Hanrath

{AV} Dimitri Demergis, Flemington, New Jersey

{AW} Charles Harris

{AX} Nick Kuefler, Florida State University School of Music

{AY} M. Linton

{AZ} Elliott Shevin, Oak Park, MI

{BA} Clifton Osbon, Brandon, MS

{BB} Scott Randal, Nashville, TN

{BC}Andrew Riddles

Was it an oversight?

No, we never knew that antagonyms have previously been called "contronyms" until Mark Israel emailed us. Apparently the term "contronyms" was coined by Richard Lederer in Crazy English (Pocket Books, 1989, ISBN 0-671-68907-X). Mark has listed several dozen contronyms in the alt.usage.english FAQ (or link to it). We're proud to say we have some he didn't have!

Derivation of the word "antagonym" by the author

1. an·tag·o·nize (àn-tàg´e-nìz´) verb, transitive

To counteract.

[Greek antagonizesthai, to struggle against : anti-, anti- + agonizesthai, to struggle (from agon, contest).]

2. -onym suffix

Word; name: acronym.

[Greek -onumon, neuter of -onumos, having a specified kind of name, from onuma, name.]

(From Microsoft Bookshelf © 1987 - 1995 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from InfoSoft International, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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