Fun With Opposites

Accidental gaps

Many word opposites, or antonyms, are obvious and well known, such as good and bad and black and white. Others are easy to recognize and understand because they’re formed by adding prefixes before the word, such as anti, dis, or non (approve/disapprove).

Other opposites are, frankly, mysterious. They’re “accidental lexical gaps” that aren’t formed with a prefix or suffix. Let’s look into these unpaired words that have uncommon antonyms.

Do you tend to stay up late at night? If you get active at night, you’re nocturnal. This term comes from the Middle French nocturnal and from Latin nox meaning “night.”

It is a word most people are familiar with, but what's its opposite?

The opposite of nocturnal is diurnal, which means "during the day." The term comes from the Latin diurnalis meaning “daily” and dies meaning “day” (plus the suffix urnus, which denotes time).

Humans are typically diurnal, but you rarely hear anyone call us that. The adjective is more often used to describe animals that are active during the day and sleep at night, or to describe something that has a daily cycle, such as the tide or flowers that open by day and close by night.

A placebo is a harmless pill, medicine, or procedure prescribed for the psychological benefit of the patient. Placebo comes from the Latin phrase “I shall please.”

A placebo is also an inert substance used in controlled trials to test the efficacy of another drug. Most people know the word placebo, but did you know this word has an opposite that is rarely used?

The opposite of placebo is the sound-alike word nocebo, coined in 1961 by Walter Kennedy. It means “I shall harm.”

Ever heard of the placebo effect? It's when a patient has a positive result from a placebo that’s attributed to their belief in that treatment. Well, the nocebo effect has been called placebo’s evil twin, because warnings about possible side effects can result in a patient experiencing negative symptoms just because they heard about them.

Déjà vu is that eerie feeling you get when you think you’ve previously experienced something that you’re actually encountering for the first time. The French term literally means “already seen.”

The French philosopher and researcher Émile Boirac coined the term in 1876, and its scientific name is promnesia. But, there's something just as spooky as déjà vu . . . its opposite!

The opposite of déjà vu is jamais vu, which is when you do not recognize a word or, perhaps, a person or place that should be familiar. It also comes from French and means “never seen.”

There’s also a French term for the phenomenon commonly called the tip of your tongue. Presque vu, which translates to “almost seen,” means you can’t immediately recall a familiar word, name, or situation, but you eventually remember the elusive memory.

Sometimes, people who are held hostage form emotional and psychological bonds with their captors . . . strange, right?

Well, it happens, and the name for the condition is Stockholm syndrome. It was coined in 1973, at the end of a six-day bank siege in Stockholm during which a bank employee became romantically attached to a robber who held her hostage. The most infamous example of Stockholm syndrome involves the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. And, of course, there is an opposite to this strange hookup, too.

Just as bizarre as Stockholm syndrome is its opposite: Lima syndrome, which is when kidnappers develop sympathy for their hostages and let them go without using them as bargaining chips.

The term was coined in 1996, after the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in Lima, Peru. Members of a militant movement took several hundred diplomats, government and military officials, and business executives hostage at a party held at the residence of Japan’s ambassador to Peru. Within a few days, most of the hostages were set free.

Roughly 90 percent of humans are righties, so that leaves 10 percent as lefties. And, an estimated 1 percent of people are ambidextrous, or "able to use our right and left hands equally well." The word comes from the Latin dexter, which means “related to the right side” and the Latin prefix ambi, meaning "both."

But, what if you're all thumbs?

Even rarer than people who are ambidextrous are those who are ambilevous, or "having equally bad ability in both hands." The term also comes from the Latin prefix ambi, meaning "both," and laevus, meaning "left." (Until recently, left-handers got a bad rap.)

Ambilevous is not commonly used and it usually results from a debilitating physical condition.

In the digital age, you may know Anonymous as an international network of activists and hackers who do not disclose their identity. The group took its name from the adjective that means not named or identified. Anonymous comes from the Greek word anonymia, meaning “without a name” or “namelessness.”

More often, we see the term used to describe an individual who prefers to remain unknown, such as an anonymous author or an anonymous donor. What do you call yourself if you want that recognition though?

(Want to learn more unusual hacker group names? Check out these Strange Names of Infamous Hackers.)

The opposite of anonymous is onymous, which means "named or having a name." Onymous is a “back formation” of anonymous. A back formation is the process of creating a new word by removing an “affix” such as an.

You might exclaim uh-oh when there’s a catastrophe, or "a sudden disaster that causes damage and suffering." Unfortunately, people have been experiencing catastrophes for eons. The term dates back to the 1500s and comes from the Greek katastrophe, meaning “an overturning or a sudden end.”

Fortunately, not everything is doom and gloom.

The opposite of catastrophe is eucatastrophe. J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the epic The Lord of the Rings, coined the term by simply adding the Greek prefix eu, meaning "good," to catastrophe.

He wanted a word to describe the sudden turn of events at the end of a story, which ensures the protagonist has a happy ending. Spoiler alert!

When we feel distress, we’re experiencing extreme anxiety, sorrow, or pain. The term comes from the Old French destrecier, meaning "to restrain or afflict," and from the Latin distringere, meaning "to pull apart."

So, when we aren't feeling that anxiety or pain that stress brings . . . what are we feeling?

The opposite of distress is eustress, coined by endocrinologist Hans Selye who, like Tolkien, added the Greek prefix eu, meaning "good," to the world stress.

While most of us don’t use this term in our everyday speech—we’re more likely to say “I’m feeling happy”—eustress is used in psychology to describe a healthy and stimulating level of stress.

Optimum means “most conducive to a favorable outcome.” The term comes from the Latin optimus, meaning "best." We're afraid to ask . . . what's the worst?

Well, the word pessimum, meaning "bad or least favorable (especially relating to an organism's survival)," might do the trick. The term comes from the Latin pessimus, meaning "worst or lowest condition."

Pessimum is often used to describe an organism, but it’s also called into use to describe a crime or the economy. And, when you have a vision test, objects you see imperfectly are called . . . you guessed it: pessimums.

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