Sticky Notes of Thoughts

…because some thoughts are worth remembering

On Deceptive (?) Words


As English as a Second Language speaker, I’m intrigued by grammatical exceptions to the rule. Similarly, there are vocabulary words that intrigue me for various reasons. The seem to fall into 3 categories:

  1. Words that don’t sound like what they mean:
    • Bucolic: if you’ve never heard this word used in context, and you had to take a guess as to what it means, would you ever guess that it meant rural? My first guess would have been something less idyllic, perhaps because it sounds like bubonic?
    • Avuncular: one of my favorite words because today, it captures a whole demeanor without referencing the word uncle, to mean uncle-like (because somehow the word uncle lost the “avu-“ beginning of the original Latin root, avus (grandfather) and avunculus (maternal uncle). The word, avuncular, doesn’t sound sweet, like my uncles…, perhaps because of the hard “v” sound and rhymes with jugular?
    • Tutelage: it has an onomatopoeic quality that makes it seem like it should mean something fun, but act of guiding is serious business, though I can’t help but chuckle to myself when someone is being introduced as ” <so and so> was under the tutelage of <someone really impressive>…”
    • Bespoke: Not sure how “speak up” in Old English came to mean custom-made (I suppose you spoke up your specifications?) but it’s one of those words where you know both parts that make up the word but you aren’t quite convinced when you learn the real meaning
  2. A pair of words that mean the same thing but sounds like they should mean the opposite:
    • Deboned vs. boned: do I want my chicken deboned or boned? They both mean without the bone
    • Inflammable vs. flammable: not knowing that they both mean “easily caught on fire” can be dangerous!
    • Ravel vs. unravel: The explanation of “The prefix is either reversive or intensive, according as ravel is taken to mean ‘tangle’ or ‘untangle'” [Century Dictionary] does not really make matters better when unravel used to be a transitive form and it transformed to intransitive in the 17th century
    • Regardless vs. irregardless: I’m glad that at least this pair has caused controversy since the early 20th century…as most dictionaries list irregardless as incorrect usage
  3. Other contradictory or controversial (?) words for one reason or another
    • Spendthrift: WHICH IS IT!? are you spending or are you thrifty? Thrifty is the second part so it looks like spend is an adjective for thrift, but no, it somehow means spending money extravagantly
    • Sanction: a noun and a verb, and it means both authorization and punishment. It’s one of those words used in legal documents, so isn’t the ambiguity problematic at best?
    • Citation: it’s good to have more citations for your report, but you better not be getting more citations from a police officer
    • Literally: probably the newest of the bunch, now officially acknowledged by major dictionaries, but what does it say of our society, for a word to mean “in a literal manner” AND its exact opposite, “metaphorically” because people kept misusing the word (by 180˚); I mean, what is next..?
    • Ironic: this word may not be next, but at least well on its way to lose its original meaning, thanks in part to Alanis Morisette whose hit song “Ironic” details numerous incidents she calls ironic, but they merely reflect bad timing, e.g. “It’s a death row pardon two minutes too late. And isn’t it ironic… don’t you think”  so Ms. Morisette, with all due respect, nah, I really don’t think.

What are other words out there that fall into any of those categories?

Is there a term that captures these sets of words?

4 comments on “On Deceptive (?) Words

  1. bifyu (@bifyu)
    February 17, 2015

    Word that that can be their own opposites: contranyms. See also “cleave” and “hew”.

    There are also words that may mean opposite things, depending on your culture, e.g. “table” (American: postpone, defer; British: bring up for consideration)

    Liked by 1 person

    • lavayoda
      February 18, 2015

      brilliant! i’m going to lose sleep over pondering upon cleave and hew….

      i just remembered “wind up” and “wind down” a company means the same thing.


  2. Robert Brewer
    February 19, 2015

    I didn’t know the correct meaning of spendthrift!


    • lavayoda
      February 20, 2015

      what? didn’t i learn it from you? or did you think it was the opposite?


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