Monday, May 10, 2010

Opposites that mean the same thing,
and vice-versa

I've long been intrigued by English words that are often opposites, but can have identical meanings.

  • "After our number is called, we can move UP to the front of the line" (or DOWN to the front of the line).
  • "Please slow UP -- I can't run as fast as you can" (or slow DOWN).
  • The HOTTEST new computer can also be the COOLEST new computer.
There are also individual words that can have opposite implications.
  • "He was cited for bravery." (good)
  • "He was cited for being drunk on duty." (bad)
And individual words that can have opposite meanings.
  • "Inflammable" can mean a substance that can burn, or can't burn.
And words that can be compliments or criticisms.
  • "Lightweight" is good for a portable PC, but bad for someone who wants a job as a professor or sales manager.
Readers' additions are welcome. But please skip slang like "bad" meaning "good."



  1. "Slim chance" and "fat chance" mean the same thing while a "wise man" and a "wise guy" are completely different. And yes, if your house burns "up", it really burns "down." Then there's the classic, drive on a "parkway" and park on a "driveway." No wonder English is such a hard language to learn!

    Thanks for your comment,

  2. Michael, I have a feeling that you are an English super-hero in your other life.

    Tell me, sensei... what is thy pet peeve?

    The only thing that REALLY bugs me is when people put an apostrophe on a plural, not realizing that they've just made the word a possessive.

    That really bugs the crap out of me. Incidentally, I found a few examples of this bastardization of the English language on a competitor's website, but I didn't let him know. It’s like geek revenge.

  3. I respectfully disagree that "inflammable" can mean either something that can burn or something that can't burn. The word "inflammable" IS quite interesting in that both "flammable" and "inflammable" mean exactly the same thing - something that can burn. But it would be incorrect to use "inflammable" to indicate something that will not burn and, perhaps, depending upon the situation, dangerous as well.

  4. F. Eric...

    I respectfully disagree with your respectful disagreement about possible dual meanings of "inflammable."

    Sometimes the Latin prefix "in" (also "em" and "im") means pretty much the same thing as the English "in." An inflamed arm is hot and red, i.e, "in flames."

    However, the Latin prefix "in" often means "not," as in "incredible," "insufficient," and "inimicable"