Deceptively Synonymous
May 17, 2009 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Is there a term for words that seem like they should be antonyms but are actually synonymous? For example: Caregiver & Caretaker.

I've seen words that contain opposite meanings (like 'cleave' or 'dust') referred to as contronyms, autoantonyms, and antagonyms.

But I can't find a name for words that should be opposites but actually mean the same thing. Please let me know if there is a specific grammatical term for it, or if you have a suggestion (I was thinking "Deceptive Synonyms"). Also, other examples besides "caregiver" and "caretaker"?
posted by Saxon Kane to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Flammable and Inflammable.
posted by aswego at 11:42 AM on May 17, 2009

Regardless and irregardless, though irregardless is frowned upon.
posted by needs more cowbell at 11:53 AM on May 17, 2009

What English speakers call, "Peacekeeping forces?" The Russian term translates as, "PeaceMAKING forces."
posted by availablelight at 11:53 AM on May 17, 2009

howabout nonplused... just as a pet peeve of mine. It is so often misused that it can now mean "surprised" or "completely unsurprised"

this phenomenon leaves me nonplused.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 11:57 AM on May 17, 2009

But I believe the descriptive category for these words is "Pseudo-Antonyms".
posted by Cold Lurkey at 12:01 PM on May 17, 2009

Forgive the derail, but is the philosophy behind the two forces the same? Peacekeeping, to me, means trying to maintain the amount of peace in the status quo, meaning preventing a violent situation from breaking out, while peacemaking sounds like actively intervening to create peace (ie taking a side in a conflict to end it faster). I'm not too up on Russian foriegn policy.

I don't know a name for the phenomenon. This Straight Dope column may be of interest, though. Apparently, older English phrases with the prefix "dis" sometimes meant "more intense," rather than the opposite (which could also be the case back then, oddly enough), so they would sound to a modern person like deceptive synonyms. That may be a springboard, especially if you try looking for words that start with "dis."

Oh, and "deceptively" itself has two contradictory meanings. For example, "My brother almost broke his neck diving into the deceptively shallow lake," or "My brother almost drowned in the deceptively shallow lake." The term means the lake was more shallow than it appeared in one sentence, and less shallow than it appeared in the other. I'm guessing this is more a deceptive homonym, though, even though it's arguably one phrase.

Here's a Cracked list that may be of interest, if not 100% relevant. "9 Words That Don't Mean What You Think"
posted by mccarty.tim at 12:14 PM on May 17, 2009

I'm not even a native English speaker, but a lot of these don't make much sense as phrases which should mean opposite things, unless you look at words at their most minimal / common meanings to derive these pairings. English has a straightforward phrase "to give care" and an idiomatic verbal expression, "to take care of (someone/something)," which obviously mean pretty much the same thing. It seems obvious that their substantive versions would also mean the same thing.

Similarly, "priceless" means you can't attach a price to it, it is without price. "Worthless" means it is without worth. "Price" and "worth" are not always synonyms.

To save myself time, I looked up "inflammable" and "flammable," even though the difference is obvious to me. So here you go:

The adjective "inflammable" comes from the same root as the verb "inflame." It means "capable of burning," just like "flammable." The problem with "inflammable" is that many people think the "in" at the beginning is the prefix meaning "not," as in "incapable" or "insufficient." But it is actually another prefix, also sometimes spelled "en," which is used in the sense "cause to be." (E.g., "enrapture": "cause to be in a state of rapture.") So "inflame" means "cause to be on fire." "Inflammable" means "able to be caused to be on fire."
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 12:54 PM on May 17, 2009

Janus Words
posted by gensubuser at 12:59 PM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is there a term for words that seem like they should be antonyms but are actually synonymous? For example: Caregiver & Caretaker.

This isn't their real name, but can we call them 'false enemies'?

You know, like 'false friends'? I'll get me coat...
posted by Sova at 1:00 PM on May 17, 2009

In the same line as priceless and worthless, there's prisoner and jailer.
posted by kprincehouse at 1:22 PM on May 17, 2009

... although after some thinking, priceless and worthless aren't that much of a paradox. Something of inestimable or infinite value, or something that has a worth to the owner in excess of its worth to any potential buyers, is "priceless" in a very straightforward, literal market sense. As Dee Xtrovert pointed out, price and worth are not synonyms.
posted by kprincehouse at 1:29 PM on May 17, 2009

A house can burn up, or it can burn down.
posted by teraflop at 2:37 PM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by Wet Spot at 6:11 PM on May 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

'press' or 'depress' (a button)
posted by dixie flatline at 6:25 PM on May 17, 2009

- 'dust' and 'undust' (remove dust)

- 'root' and 'unroot' (pull out something by the roots)

- 'bone' and 'debone' (remove the bones of something)

Lastly, this is across languages but I noticed that dandruff shampoos are called anti-dandruff shampoos in Germany ('anti-schuppen shampoo').
posted by kosmonaut at 7:37 AM on May 18, 2009

I finally was able to remember the sort of 'classic' pair of these that I couldn't think of when the question was posted: 'ravel' and 'unravel'. Google reveals a few articles about this pair: here is one.
posted by dixie flatline at 12:50 AM on May 22, 2009

restful and restive
posted by dmo at 10:00 AM on May 23, 2009

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