Monday, February 8, 2010

Apple #438: Words Without Opposites

Every time I encounter the words "nonchalant," "incognito," or "nonplussed" (it's in one of the Harry Potter books), I think, "Can someone be chalant?" or  "I go cognito all the time," or  "I wonder if I'm ever plussed."

In other words, these words are built to suggest that they ought to have opposites.  But they don't. 

These light bulbs are clearly opposites to each other. Both are light bulbs, but one is light, the other dark; one right side up, the other upside down. This is what you expect from certain words, too. Alike in all things, except opposites. Friendly, unfriendly. Sensitive, insensitive. But some words do not have a corresponding opposite.
(Painting by Michael Naples)

For some time now, I've been keeping a list of words that don't have opposites.  I recently went looking for more than I could think up on my own, and in so doing, I realized that there are a lot of them.  I decided to list them for you here.

Some are not on my list, though other people have included them on their lists of words without opposites. In those cases I haven't included such words because I think they do have opposites, they're just not used that often.  "Uncouth" is one that gets mentioned a lot.  But I have seen "couth" used in print, in older British books.

Another type of word I didn't include is one which does have other applications of its root word, though not necessarily an opposite.  For example, I considered including "detention" or "detain," but there are words that use that -tain root such as "retention" or "attain." They aren't exactly opposites of "detain," but they're close enough and there are enough of them, I decided that "detain" wasn't oddball enough to make the cut.

Instead of merely listing these words and boring the socks off you, I thought I'd give you the definition, an example of how the word is used in a sentence, and then its non-existent potential opposite in another sentence.

This is another one of those entries that I don't really expect you to read in its entirety but rather to skim and pluck out whatever catches your eye.

decrepit -- in disrepair; broken down (de "down" + crepare "to break")

I had to ride that nasty old decrepit bus for a whole hour.
Gee, your house is so brand new and crepit!

defenestrate -- to throw out the window (de "down" + fenestra "window")

I feel so lousy, I'm going to defenestrate myself.
What lovely Shrinky Dinks! I'm going to fenestrate them so the sun can shine through them.

Legos depicting the First Defenestration of Prague, 1419, when three people were thrown out of a window during a fight about religion. They landed in a pile of manure and survived.
(Photo from Brickshelf)

A fenestrated wreath?
(Photo from eHow)

defunct -- having ceased to exist or function (de "off" + fungi "duty")

That old Apple 2e is now defunct.
My iPod is totally funct, man!

depraved -- hopelessly corrupted by vice (de "completely" + pravus "crooked")

Reefer Madness is a movie that depicts teenagers who become depraved after smoking marijuana.
After the hardened criminal did his time in jail, he emerged a praved man.

deprive -- to take away from (de "away" + privare "belonging to oneself")

When their house burned down to the ground, the Arson family was deprived of all their possessions.
Everyone in their town pitched in with donations, so within a few short weeks, the Arsons were comprived with food, clothing, and furniture.

despair -- to abandon hope (de "without" + sperare "hope")

When Chuck Nolan found himself stranded on a desert island, he despaired of ever being rescued.
Once he caught his own fish and made a friend out of Wilbur the volleyball, his mood improved so much, he could even look at the photo of his girlfriend with spair.

[Edit: one vigilant Apple reader suggests "aspire" as the opposite of "despair," which would bump poor despair off this list.]

destitute -- so poor as to lack all resources for subsistence (de "away" + stare "to stand." I think the sense here is that you're so poor and you have so little, you stand away from everyone else.)

An orphan who grew up with no family, the little foundling was completely destitute.
Bill Gates is a stitute money-bags.

disconsolate -- incapable of being comforted (dis "away" + consolare "comfort")

At the news that she could not get tickets to the Hannah Montana show, Trixie was disconsolate.
I am consolate, you know, so get over here and give me a hug.

disgruntled -- in a state of sulky annoyance (dis "very" + gruntle or grunt "grumble")

When he was told he would have to go with Trixie to the Hannah Montana concert, Trixie's father was very disgruntled.
The employees took the news that they would have to work overtime for two weeks very well. They were not at all gruntled.

disheveled -- rumpled, in disarray (des "apart" + chevel "hair")

When Skip came inside after wrestling with his pet grizzly bears, he looked most disheveled.
After spending two hours getting ready for the Hannah Montana concert, Trixie finally announced that she was fully sheveled and ready to go.

dismantle -- to take apart into its pieces; to tear down the walls (des "away" + manteler "cloak")

Angry at Dirk for the amount of time he spent fooling with his iPod, Wilhelmina dismantled it.
Skip spent three days mantling his Legos Death Star.

dismay -- despair in the face of obstacles; fear or apprehension (de intensifier + ex + magare "divest of power or ability")

When Skip first opened the box that held the Legos Death Star, the sight of so many thousands of little pieces filled him with dismay.
However, when he began working on it and he saw that it wasn't that hard to assemble after all, he was filled with may.

disrupt -- to throw into disorder; break in on (dis "apart" + rumpere "to break")

Children! Stop disrupting this class or I shall have to beat you with erasers and put you in detention!
Thus threatened, the children all scurried back to their desks and the class was rupted within a few moments.

feckless -- generally incompetent (feck "effective" + less "not")

Clark Griswold wants to decorate his house for Christmas, but he's completely feckless.
Martha Stewart, though, she's a really feck decorator.

imbecile -- person of subnormal intelligence (in "not" + baculum "stick." Here the sense is "weak, or feeble, as unsupported by a stick." Except the weakness became specifically that of intelligence.)

Don't hire that imbecile plumber again! He connected our toilet to the sink!
Stephen Hawking proved his becilic prowess in his famous book, A Brief History of Time.

impeccable -- flawless (in "not" + pecare "to sin")

Audrey Hepburn was impeccable in her dress, demeanor, and speech.
Amy Winehouse is so peccable, it's hard to look at her sometimes.

(Photo from the thoughtscream)

Photo from Dvorak Uncensored)

impetuous -- impulsive; characterized by sudden action without much thought (in "into" + petere "to aim for, rush at")

Those two impetuous kids ran off to Vegas and got married even though they'd known each other only three days.
The seasoned couple in their fifties petuously considered their options before deciding to take a stroll together.

impoverished -- made poor (in "in" + paupertas "poverty")

After Swifty O'Deuce gambled away his family's savings, they were impoverished.
When Lucky Besterd won the lottery, he and his whole family became unpoverished.

inane -- lacking all sense or substance (inanem "empty, void, worthless, useless")

The one political party thought that all the bills proposed by the other political party were so inane they weren't even worth the paper they were printed on.
The idea proposed by the six year-old child, however, was the anest thing any of the politicians had ever heard.

incessant -- occurring so often as to seem to be without interruption (in "not" + cessare "cease")

Trixie's pleas to be allowed to go to the Hannah Montana concert were incessant.
Her father wished that the songs of Hannah Montana that Trixie played in her room would be cessant.

inchoate -- only partially in existence; half-formed (alteration of inchoare, which comes from in "on" + cohum "strap fastened to the oxen's yoke." As in, before you can begin, you have to fasten the strap to the oxen's yoke. Presumably, if it's inchoate, you haven't hooked the strap to the ox yet.)

She opened her mouth to explain, but as her ideas were still only inchoate, very little of what she said made sense.
The bank robber's plan to steal all the cash was so choate, he and his buddies never got caught.

[Edit: that same vigilant Apple reader sent me this article about Justice Antonin Scalia's battle against the word "choate," and how it has persisted in lawyer-lingo in spite of him.]

incognito -- cloaked; hiding one's identity (in "not" + cognoscere "to know")

Donning a long black wig, sunglasses, buck teeth, and a trench coat, the starlet was so incognito, all the paparazzi ignored her.
No matter what the Incredible Hulk did to try to disguise himself, he would always be cognito.

Even though he's wearing a trench coat, sunglasses, and a fedora, Johnny Depp is still cognito.
(Photo from OK!)

incommunicado -- without the means or ability to communicate (in "not" + communicare "to share")

Dude, I can't talk to you when I'm in detention because I'm supposed to be incommunicado.
Sneaky Fumblethumbs, the worst spy on the planet, always told everyone where he was going and what he was doing; he was always communicado.

incorrigible -- incapable of responding to correction (in "not" + corrigere "to correct")

After failing to remember for the thousandth time to wipe his feet before coming inside, his mother clutched her hair and yelled, "Skip, you're incorrigible!"
My puppy, Fred, is so smart and corrigible, he learned five new tricks in one day.

indelible -- cannot be erased (in "not" + delere "to destroy")

Little Maisie wrote all the bad words she knew on the living room wall in great, big letters with indelible ink, which made her parents decide to tear down that wall and turn the two rooms into one.
Phil discovered when his hard drive crashed just how delible all that data was. 

indigent -- poor; lacking the necessities (in "not" + egere "to lack")

Even now, a lot of children growing up in Appalachia are indigent.
What could you ever get Donald Trump for Christmas?  He's totally outdigent.

indignation -- righteous anger (in "not" + dignus "worthy." In other words, you think the other person isn't worthy of something, and that ticks you off.)

When Matilda was given the medal for first place in the relay even though she'd come in second, all the parents of the other children hollered at the referee in indignation.
Realizing that the referee had made a mistake, Matilda handed the medal to the true first place winner, who thanked her with dignation.

indolent -- lazy (in "not" + dolare "pain." As in, if you don't take any pains or trouble to do anything, you're lazy.)

Yawning, his feet up on the coffee table, indolent Dirk changed the channels on the TV instead of doing any of his chores.
Meanwhile, Wilhelmina dolently cleaned and scrubbed the entire downstairs of the house.

indomitable -- cannot be subdued (in "not" + domare "to tame")

In Superbowl X in 1976, the Pittsburgh Steelers were indomitable.
Contrary to what many people thought, the Indianapolis Colt's in tonight's Superbowl proved to be domitable. (Go, Saints!)

Drew Brees (left) and his team the New Orleans Saints turned out to be the indomitable ones.  Peyton Manning (right) and his Indianapolis Colts proved to be domitable.
(Photo from Gambling 911)

ineffable -- defying expression; too sacred to be spoken (in "not" + ex "out" + fari "speak")

Many Jews believe that God is so sacred and ineffable, they will not write or speak His name.
Graffiti artist Hip Hop Willy effed his name all over the place.

inept -- generally incompetent (in "not" + aptus "apt")

Although Arthur Fumbletoes took lessons and tried as hard as he could, he remained inept at ice skating.
Kristi Yamaguchi is superept at ice skating.

inert -- incapable of motion; often used to describe non-reactive gases (in "not" + artus "skill")

After the wise guy knocked Private Eye Malloy on the back of the head with the butt of his gun, Malloy lay on the floor inert.
Susie Homemaker was entirely too ert for her sister Loafula's taste as she went about the house vacuuming, dusting, cooking, and doing the laundry.

infernal -- inhabitant of hell (infernus "lower regions")

My dad often says he can't hear what people are saying because of all the infernal machines in the house.
Penitents who strive to improve themselves in the eyes of God hope that, after death, their souls are sent to regions outfernal.

inhibition -- conscious exclusion of unacceptable thoughts or behaviors (in "in" + habere "to hold")

Sly Steve Playsaround slipped Lucinda Batshereyes another drink, hoping that with enough liquor, she would lose her inhibitions and go home with him.
Lucinda knew exactly what Sly Steve was up to, though, and she redoubled her efforts to stay hibited.

insidious -- beguiling but harmful; undermining secretively (in "in" + sedere "to sit," as in, to sit and wait in ambush)

The insidious cancer spread throughout her lungs before anyone detected it.
At the last surprise party he went to, Loud Larry did not even hide behind the couch but sidiously stuck his head out the front door and yelled to the birthday girl, "Hey! We're about to surprise you!"

insipid -- lacking interest, impact, or flavor (in "not" + sapidus "tasty")

Don't make me take another sip of your insipid soup.
Her Hungarian goulash was the most sipid dish I've ever tasted.

insouciant -- blithely unconcerned, almost to the point of rudeness (in "not" + se soucier "to care")

Love-struck Wally struggled to bring armloads of shoes to the chair where his dear Felicity sat, and when he tripped and dropped the boxes of shoes everywhere, insouciant Felicity continued filing her nails.
Martha Causemaven, determined to fight poverty, was to be seen without fail at the center of campus souciantly handing out flyers and begging people for their support and their donations.

intact -- undamaged; untouched, often in terms of a woman's virginity (in "not" + tangere "to touch")

The blushing bride emerged from the bridal chamber surprisingly intact.
The groom's cheek, however, which had obviously been raked by fingernails, was clearly tact.

misgivings -- feelings of doubt or apprehension (mis "bad" + ghab "to take, hold")

Scooby Doo and the gang had all sorts of misgivings when they set foot in the old mansion that was rumored to be haunted.
Everything went so smoothly for LuAnn from the time she put in a bid on the house until the day she closed, she had only givings about the prospect of moving in.

Shaggy and Scooby regularly state their misgivings in the beginning of this episode of the original Scooby-Doo cartoon.

misnomer -- incorrect or unsuitable name (mis "bad" + nomen "name")

Technically "The Daily Apple" is a misnomer for this blog, since I haven't posted entries on a daily basis in years.
The Harry Potter books are full of characters with eunomers such as Severus Snape, Draco Malfoy, Bellatrix LeStrange, and Minerva McGonagoll.

nonchalant -- coolly unconcerned or indifferent (in "not" + chaloir "to have concern for" which is from calere "to be hot")

Private Eye Malloy nonchalantly flicked his cigarette into the gutter before following the bookie into the building.
Martha Causemaven, shocked at Malloy's littering, ran to the gutter, plucked his cigarette butt out of it, and yelled after him chalantly, "Hey, Mister, you dropped this!"

nondescript -- lacking individual characteristics making it difficult to describe (non "not" + de "down" + scribere "to write")

I can't tell you what that robber looked like because he was completely nondescript.
With his elephantine nose, prominent chin, two missing front teeth, and spiky bleached hair, the job candidate was entirely too descript.

nonpareil -- a disk of chocolate covered in beads of sugar; a model of excellence beyond par (non "not" + parilis "equal")

Those chocolates are so delicious and unlike anything I've ever tasted, they are nonpareil.
I think they taste like any other boring old blob of chocolate. To me, they're completely pareil.

Nonpareils. That's what they're called, anyway.  It's a matter of opinion whether they are actually nonpareil or only just pareil.
(You can order these nonpareils from O'Shea's Candies for $13.50 a pound.)

nonplussed -- completely bewildered (non "not" + plus "further," specifically as in it is impossibly to be perplexed any further.

When Professor Turkentine tried to explain the theory of relativity, everyone in the class was nonplussed.
When we read Stephen Hawking's much clearer explanation of it, however, we became plussed.

posthumous -- occurring after a person's death (originally, from posthumus, "last born" after the death of the father. Later it came to be post "after" + humus "earth" or after one is buried in the earth.)

Countless albums, CDs, and recordings of Jimi Hendrix's music have been issued posthumously.
Which really only attests to the amount of work he did prehumously.

unbeknownst -- without one's knowledge (actually a vulgar formation of "unbeknown")

In the dark of night, Rufus sneaked up to Lila Jane's house with armloads of toilet paper unbeknownst to anyone in the house.
When he got too carried away with flinging the toilet paper about and fell into a thorn bush, his shouts and howls made his pain beknownst to the entire neighborhood.

ungainly -- difficult to manage; lacking grace (un "not" + gegn "convenient, proper")

Jar Jar Binks' loping, ungainly walk is only one of the things wrong with that character.
The sleek, two-year-old gelding ran at a gainly pace.

unkempt -- uncared for, slovenly (un "not" + kamb "comb")

Amy Winehouse and Courtney Love both seem to prefer the unkempt look.
Trinity's hair in The Matrix is the epitome of kempt.

Trinity on the motorcycle with the keymaker.  Look how kempt her hair is, even while swerving about at top speed! In my alternate-vocabulary-universe, I'd go so far as to say it is the epitome of kemptitude.
(Photo posted by fangchu at Photobucket)

unswerving -- going directly ahead; dependable especially in loyalty (un "not" + swerven "to rove, stray")

The Knights of the Round Table swore their unswerving allegiance to King Arthur.
Guinevere and Lancelot, however, were swerving in their loyalty when they sneaked off to have an affair.

untold -- an incalculable amount (un "not" + tella "to reckon or count")

The earthquakes in Haiti have wreaked untold damage to property and human lives.
The money in Little Maisie's piggy bank is a told dollar and sixty-three cents.

untoward -- not in keeping with accepted standards of what is right or proper (un "not" + to "to" + wert "turn;" or turned away from)

That scoundrel's untoward behavior to young women is unacceptable and offensive.
His brother's more gentlemanly way of addressing young women is toward and appreciated, if a bit boring.

unwieldy -- difficult to handle because of awkward shape or weight (un "not" + walth "power")

As a small boy Lancelot wrestled and strained to lift the large, unwieldy sword.
Once he was a grown man, Lancelot found all manner of swords and weapons to be perfectly wieldy.

unruly -- unwilling to submit to restraint or discipline (un "not" + regere "to rule, guide, or straighten")

The unruly children continued to disrupt class, in spite of the threat of being beaten with erasers.
Down the hall in another classroom, the ruly children quietly and neatly went about their work with nary a gruntle.

As I was coming up with those example sentences, I kept thinking of more words without opposites, and the list kept getting longer.  Finally I had to cut myself off.  So I'm sure you'll think of more words without opposites than I have listed here.

The Phrase Finder, Words with no opposite equivalent
World Wide Words, Unpaired Words
Wordnik, Opposites without (commonly used) opposites
Senator Jim Elliott, Queen City News, Montana Viewpoint: Words without opposites
Rink Works, Fun With Words, Words With No Positive Forms
OneLook and the dictionaries provided through it
Online Etymology Dictionary, defenestrate


  1. Best apple EVER!!! Apple Lady, you are a perfectly ripe Honey Crisp.

  2. love it. I'm sure you know Jack Winter's "How I met my wife" from the New Yoker 25 July 1994

  3. Thanks, Marjorie!

    Two, I did not know that story, but I do know. It's reprinted here:

    There is also a poem along similar lines called "A Very Descript Man." You can read it here:

  4. Waaay clever! I had never thought of these words in those terms. You may have invented some of the next slang words!

  5. Peccable and ruly are perfectly good dictionary words


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