I am literally dying to find the answer to this question
January 4, 2012 2:01 AM   Subscribe

People frequently use the word 'literally' when they mean 'figuratively', the exact opposite. Are there any other pairs of words (in English or other languages) where this is the case, and is there a name for this phenomenon?

[Previously.]
posted by alby to Writing & Language (52 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
"fat chance" for "extremely slim chance"
posted by bardophile at 2:08 AM on January 4, 2012


"Actually" for "not at all"

["delicious" for "disgusting" and "healthy" for "about as unhealthy as you can get", but these are food industry aberrations, not the phenomenon you are talking about; no idea what it's called]
posted by Namlit at 2:26 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Fat chance" does literally only mean "slim chance", people aren't misusing it.

"Peruse" is used to mean "read/scan quickly" when it actually means "read in great detail".

"Decimate" means "to reduce by one tenth" but is now used to mean "almost obliterate".

"Bemused" means "confused" but is almost always confused for "mildly amused".

Those examples might be a bit pedantic, I grant.
posted by Phire at 2:28 AM on January 4, 2012 [10 favorites]


It seems to me that the fat-chance-no-chance pair is ironic, which is different yet again.
posted by Namlit at 2:28 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I could care less" instead of "I couldn't care less"
posted by jozxyqk at 2:35 AM on January 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


There's "luck out", which I've heard people use to mean get lucky, or to be out of luck. And "it's all downhill from here" can mean it's going to be easy from now on, or it's going to get worse and worse, which are not quite opposites, but nearly.

Then there are very frequent cases that I think start off as teenage slang, where you have things like "wicked" or "sick", etc, meaning "great". There's a whole ton of words like this for "good" that originated from a "bad" meaning.
posted by lollusc at 2:36 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Awesome
posted by evil_esto at 2:38 AM on January 4, 2012


"atomic" actually means very small or basic, but since the atom bomb people started using it to mean something HUUUUGE or, more rarely, complex. That may be more of a shifting meaning than really "wrong" in the way people misuse literally, but these things are hazy.
posted by Nattie at 3:05 AM on January 4, 2012


The atomic one reminds me of "quantum" in "quantum leap". Literally something quantum is on a tiny scale. But in "quantum leap" people usually mean "giant leap".

Also, more of a shifting meaning than really "wrong" in the way people misuse literally: as a linguist, I find this a bit of a weird distinction to draw. Anything native speakers start frequently doing "wrong" in their language is basically language change. A common "misuse" of meaning is a shifting meaning. Sometimes meanings shift and the old one remains as well, which is what is happening here, but that doesn't mean a change hasn't taken place.
posted by lollusc at 3:21 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


The word you're looking for is "auto-antonym" or one of its many cousins (wikipedia). Searching for these terms you will discover lists of such words (like here). There are quite a few examples in English. I particularly like "sanction". You could also search language log for these terms. If you're interested in language, language log is full of wonderful discussion about all things linguistic. It's my favorite blog.

By the way, I'm not sure about some of the examples mentioned by earlier posters, like "decimate" or "delicious". Especially, all or most evaluative terms like "awesome" can be used in an ironic sense, which doesn't make them auto-antonyms. "Luck out" is a good one, though (and is discussed at length over at language log).
posted by faustdick at 3:27 AM on January 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Literally something quantum is on a tiny scale. But in "quantum leap" people usually mean "giant leap".

A quantum is a piece of something - size does not mater, the fact that it only comes in discrete pieces does. A quantum leap is a discontinuous change, one that takes you to a higher level that cannot be approached gradually - I don't think anyone is using 'quantum leap' to mean a microscopic change.
posted by Dr Dracator at 3:27 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's an example on the front page: The NY Times has been killing it of late with interactive features.
posted by telstar at 3:41 AM on January 4, 2012


I don't know if I agree with these words being "auto antonyms". I guess I'm interpreting the OP's request as being words with shifted meanings or meaning in use differing from meaning in dictionary denotation. Something like "cleave" - meaning both to adhere to something, and to sever - is an auto antonym, but that's just a case of a word having actual different meanings, rather than a cultural shift/disagreement on what the word means (e.g. "killing it").

As an aside, in French "actuel/actuelle" means "current" and it gave my classmates back in high school no end of trouble/amusement when we discussed news or presidents or events that were "actuels". Though I suppose discussing actual news would be a step up from discussing whatever gets passed for it these days.
posted by Phire at 4:12 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the UK the expression "table a motion" means "Let's address this issue round the table at which we are currently meeting; we will talk about it now". In the USA it means something like "Lets lay this issue aside - on the table we are meeting around (or record it in a table of issues?); we will talk about it another time.

This is an example of a false friend, faux amis or false cognate. However not all false cognates have opposite meanings like this - they are more commonly subtle differences.
posted by rongorongo at 4:14 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Nonplussed" means bewildered or confused, but is now often misused to mean unconcerned or unimpressed.
posted by nicwolff at 4:32 AM on January 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


I think people are just using "literally" wrong. They aren't using it to mean "figuratively," they're using it like "seriously" to emphasize, but it's used only for a metaphor (e.g. "the buildings are literally (seriously) choking in smog!").
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:32 AM on January 4, 2012 [11 favorites]


"theory" used to mean something akin to a wild guess.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:40 AM on January 4, 2012


um...that's "used" as in "the way some people use the term". Not, "it used to mean this".
posted by Thorzdad at 4:44 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think people are just using "literally" wrong. They aren't using it to mean "figuratively," they're using it like "seriously" to emphasize, but it's used only for a metaphor (e.g. "the buildings are literally (seriously) choking in smog!").

Right it's being used as an intensifier. The idea that this use is "wrong" is not really a given though, especially since it has been used that way for hundreds of years. This Slate article mentioned in the previously of the question goes into the issues in more detail, including some other controversial contranyms.
posted by burnmp3s at 4:52 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


[Reminder: OP is looking for words used to mean the opposite of what they actually mean. General conversation about the subject is tempting, but let's stick to the question, please.]
posted by taz at 5:02 AM on January 4, 2012


Clarifying question for the OP: Are you looking for pairs of opposites only where one word is used *incorrectly* to mean the other, or *any* pairs of words where one word is commonly used to mean its opposite?
posted by bardophile at 5:14 AM on January 4, 2012


Usage shifts (decays?) so much that misuses don't remain misuses for long, since we're being grumpy anyway...

I always flinch at the way "presently" (which is supposed* to mean "later" (but soon)) has become a synonym for "now" instead. The now-double meaning makes it a pretty useless word.

("Now" and "Later" are opposites, I suppose, fitting your original question.)

* I know, I know, I know. A word means what we use it to mean, and there's no Pope of English to pontificate the rules. But it still hurts my ears.
posted by rokusan at 5:25 AM on January 4, 2012


'Sea change' seems to be used nowadays to denote a rapid dramatic change, when it originally was something that happened very slowly and incrementally.
posted by edgeways at 5:52 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


To me, "no-brainer" seems like one of these; it sounds like it means something dumb, as in "Boy, I really pulled a no brainer that time!" of course, it means something like "a choice so obvious you don't even need a brain to decide."
posted by Occula at 6:02 AM on January 4, 2012


what about a word that is its own opposite: cleave. cleave means "to adhere closely" and "to split or divide"

the word "moot" has changed to mean its opposite in America. People usually use it to mean "something not worth discussing" when it actually means "something open to discussion or debate"
posted by ghostiger at 6:20 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think OP means the use of a word incorrectly, where the the intended meaning is the exact opposite of the accepted usage.

It's a hard one but I have "inflammable" used mean fire-resistant - when it of course means the same as flammable.
posted by dave99 at 6:24 AM on January 4, 2012


Comprise and compose have complementary meanings, but comprise in the passive is widely used where compose should be. For example "The USA is composed of 50 states" is correct, but we often see "The USA is comprised of 50 states," which is not correct from a prescriptivist standpoint.
posted by adamrice at 7:15 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


I believe it's called a malapropism or solecism when done unintentionally, and a catharsis when it's on purpose.
posted by mcrandello at 7:45 AM on January 4, 2012


'Chemical-free' - if a food was literally chemical-free, it would not exist.

Though as lollusc says, sometimes words really only have the meanings we understand them by. 'Literally' irritates me, but if someone told me that something was 'decimated', I would know what they were trying to convey rather than suggesting a 10th of it had been removed. And very few keep the original meaning of 'disinterested' - to mean someone who has no opinion or partisan outlook on the matter - these days.
posted by mippy at 8:17 AM on January 4, 2012


Watch 'The Bachelor' and you'll notice 'definitely' used with the opposite meaning, as in "I definitely think we have chemistry", or "I definitely like you", or "Let's talk tomorrow" - "Definitely!".
posted by Dragonness at 8:22 AM on January 4, 2012


"Moot" is sorrrrt of an example here. In its adjectival form, it can mean either "subject to debate, dispute, or uncertainty" or "having no practical significance." People frequently use the latter meaning when the former one is (I think) the traditional definition.

Its verb form (usually "to be mooted") means to "raise for discussion; suggest", which stands at odds with the "of no practical significance" definition. I can't imagine what someone new to English would get out of a close reading of this particular dictionary entry. Yikes.
posted by heresiarch at 8:26 AM on January 4, 2012


"Near miss" should indicate something was actually hit which is of course not what the phrase means.
posted by dabug at 8:26 AM on January 4, 2012


Einstein = moron
posted by John Cohen at 8:38 AM on January 4, 2012


"Sanction" has been mentioned, but this is only an example when people say "sanctioned" to mean "imposed sanctions on." "Sanction" as a noun means punishment; "sanction" as a verb means accept. So if you use "sanction" as a verb to mean "punish," you're giving it the opposite of its proper meaning.
posted by John Cohen at 8:41 AM on January 4, 2012


I've been hearing "mortified" being used to mean, sort of, depressed and/or angry rather than embarrassed more and more.
posted by cmoj at 8:51 AM on January 4, 2012


and a catharsis when it's on purpose.

"Catachresis," not "catharsis."
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:14 AM on January 4, 2012


"Argue" is sometimes used to mean "deny" as opposed to "make a case for", as in "I'm not arguing that the environment is important, but we need a strong economy too."
posted by Crane Shot at 9:18 AM on January 4, 2012


Momentarily is often used when the speaker or writer means "in a moment." "The plane will be touching down momentarily." Crap, I hope not.
posted by Dolley at 9:30 AM on January 4, 2012


nebulawindphone: "and a catharsis when it's on purpose.

"Catachresis," not "catharsis."
"

Yeah sorry, was trying to provide an example there, I fail at the humor (I did give the link to the correct term at least) (・_・;)
posted by mcrandello at 9:42 AM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Citation" might be considered an almost-auto-antonym: in one sense of the word is an honor; in another sense, it is a court summons (and not to be honored by the court).
posted by adamrice at 9:54 AM on January 4, 2012


Clarifying question for the OP: Are you looking for pairs of opposites only where one word is used *incorrectly* to mean the other, or *any* pairs of words where one word is commonly used to mean its opposite?


The first one, where a word is used incorrectly to mean the opposite of what it actually means.
posted by alby at 10:00 AM on January 4, 2012


More candidates:
"Virtually" (often the opening to describing a pretty real phenomenon; alternatively used instead of "almost")
"In effect" (used out of a causal context as a filler of some sort)
"Practically" (usually embedded in the midst of quite impractical rants)
"Really" (used to lift something quite obscure out of its shadows)
"Talented" (describes artists, especially musicians, who have spent all their lives working like maniacs to arrive at their level of achievement, and, what's important, under the assumption that if you're "talented", you don't need to work. Oops. Axe alert)
posted by Namlit at 10:29 AM on January 4, 2012


One that always tickles my ear is "apparently" used to describe information which is not at all apparent and couldn't possibly be discerned from context. As far as I can tell, more often than not it has come to mean, "based upon explicit, external information," which is pretty close to the opposite of what I expect it to mean.
posted by eotvos at 10:45 AM on January 4, 2012


People often say "in theory" or "theoretically" when they should be using "hypothetically." The Hypothesis is the (educated but unsupported) speculation about the outcome of a series of events (such as an experiment) while the theory is the foundation of a prediction based on loads of previous supporting material.
posted by Sunburnt at 11:38 AM on January 4, 2012


In conversation, I find that a lot of people use "hoi polloi" completely incorrectly: they take it to mean "fancy or upper-crust people" when it actually means "common people."
posted by Dr. Wu at 12:03 PM on January 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


That may be because it sounds a bit like "hoity toity".
Another one: "enervated" to mean "energized".
posted by Crane Shot at 12:09 PM on January 4, 2012


Scan! People use it when they mean 'skim', to go over something quickly, skipping pieces as you go. To scan something is to examine in detail, like how your scanner produces detailed images of the photos and documents you put in it. There's even a misuse in this thread!
posted by echo target at 2:19 PM on January 4, 2012


IN A WORD: OPPOSITES. (You can have that for the title of your book/article/dissertation if you want it.)

Two distinct issues here. One is the misuse of a word, which a lot of people have addressed. The other is words that actually have 2 contradictory meanings. These 2 issues can overlap with time.

Cleave. It means to separate or to join together.
Directly. "I'll be there directly," at least in the rural south, means "It will be a while."
Cited. Recognized for virtue, or given a speeding ticket.

Here's a nice treatment of "Literally."
posted by LonnieK at 4:46 PM on January 4, 2012


"Vulgar" is often used to refer to language that is taboo, when in actual fact it (also) means the normal, everyday vernacular of the general population.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:00 PM on January 4, 2012


Thanks to Freud, "fetishism" is now usually applied to oddly-directed sexual attraction, when previously it referred to oddly-directed religious worship.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:11 PM on January 4, 2012


"Physically", "physical" and "Just Physically" for "impressive-like, you know" in this example (27:30. 28:08. 28:14.) [Schuyler Chapin about Vladimir Horowitz's return to the stage in the sixties. From "The Art of Piano"]
posted by Namlit at 2:26 AM on January 5, 2012


hoi polloi

See also: 'dark, satanic mills' - taken to be a reference to industrial England, but actually refers to the intellectual 'mills' of Oxbridge. Although it's all open to debate...

References are frequently misused in this way- King Canute tried to hold back the waves to prove that he was a mere mortal that could not do it, not to show that he had mystical powers.
posted by mippy at 5:35 AM on January 5, 2012


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