What is unusual about the word pulchritude. It means beauty, especially the beauty of a woman. Pulchritude is certainly not an attractive word. How about the word diminutive or unwritten. Diminutive is not a short word, and unwritten is a word that can obviously be written. What is distinctive about these words is that they are all words that have been described as ‘not being themselves’. What they appear to mean is different from what they actually mean, their structure or appearance contrasts with their meaning, or they contradict themselves.
The term for such words is heterological, meaning something that does not describe itself, A study of such words is an esoteric one, of interest to language academics or lexicologists.
Words that do describe themselves are called homological or autological words such as finite, meaningful, numberless, pronounceable, readable, unhyphenated, thing, and visible. Good examples are grandiloquent meaning pompous or extravagant in a way intended to impress, and sesquipedalian meaning long-winded or characterized by long words. Such words are actually hard to find.
Are not almost all words heterological words? I suppose they are.
Apocryphal sounds as if it’s a story of great importance whereas it means a tale of dubious authenticity.
Belladonna may mean beautiful lady in Italian and sound like a stylish woman, but it’s the poisonous plant deadly nightshade.
Bemused might sound like amused, but it means puzzled or confused.
Benighted suggests someone who is honoured but it refers to someone who is ignorant or lacking in morals.
Bodkin ought to mean a little body but its a large needle without a point.
Bucolic surely means chocked up if not a severe illness, but it refers to an idyllic rural life or it suggests a pastoral way of life as with shepherds.
Crapulous sounds dirty but it’s excessive indulgence, intemperance.
Callipygian sounds as if describes a feature of an animal but it means well proportioned buttocks
Crepuscular refers not to a skin ailment but to creatures like bats or rabbits that are active in twilight, the period before dawn or after dusk
Decimate historically this was to kill one in every ten soldiers but nowadays it means destroying a large portion of something
Disinterested means to be impartial or unprejudiced, but it is often confused with uninterested, that is to be unconcerned or not bothered with something
Enervate is to be lacking in energy, though it sounds like the opposite, or even to annoy someone.
Enormity might be something to do with size or magnitude, but it’s actually about the seriousness or extent of something that’s bad or morally wrong.
Erstwhile means former not as often thought esteemed.
Fungible sounds like it describes a spongy fungus, but its a legal term describing goods or commodities that can be replaced by equivalent items.
Hiatus is not a commotion or a ruckus, but a pause in activity.
Inflammable suggest it can’t be set on fire, that it can’t be burnt, except that it means it can. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.
Ironclad has nothing to do with somebody dressed in armour, but it describes arguments that are impossible to disprove or contradict.
Mawkish sounds as if it might be to do with mocking someone or something, but it means to be excessively sentimental
Mordant might suggest someone who is ponderous or broody but it actually means humour that is biting and incisive. It also refers to a substance used to fix dyes to cells and textiles, and to a musical notation.
Noisome is to have a very disagreeable smell. Nothing to do with being noisy,
Nonplussed sounds like it means not caring too much about things, but it means very surprised or confused.
Nugatory must be something to do with nougat but it means futile, trifling, or having no value.
Orrery might be an animals nest or lair but it’s a mechanical model of the solar system showing the relative positions and motions of the planets.
Phlegmatic refers to a person who is calm, composed, unemotional, not as it might seem someone who gets easily excited or is animated.
Plethora means an excess of something, not an ancient Greek musical instrument
Priceless sounds as if it could mean cheap or worthless though it means the opposite, very valuable.
Prodigal looks and feels like the word prodigy which means a talented individual who invites admiration, but in reality means recklessly wasteful.
Prosaic comes from the word prose and means commonplace, lacking in imagination, dull, even though the word sounds elegant or ornamental.
Pulchritude sounds like ineptness or even a pustule, or refers to a rather large person, but as mentioned above it’s a showy word for beauty.
Saturnine was said to be the temperament of someone born under the supposed astrological influence of Saturn, but it nowadays means gloomy or melancholic.
Scurrilous could describe how some small animals move, but it’s the making or spreading scandalous claims about someone in order to damage their reputation.
Vomitorium contrary to what might seem obvious was the tunnel-like entrance in an amphitheatre or stadium.
Perhaps more familiar are words that have several meanings (of which of course there are thousands), but with one of the meanings being the opposite of another. Clip which can mean attach or cut off; left can mean remaining or departed, sanction can mean permit or punish. These are called contranyms (or auto-antonyms).
Certifiable can mean genuine/authentic or insane
To Cleave can mean to cling or to split apart.
Custom can mean standard, a shorthand for customary, or bespoke, tailored.
To Dust can mean to remove dust as in cleaning a house, or to add dust as in to dust a cake with powdered sugar.
Episodic can mean at irregular intervals or at regular intervals.
Fast as an adverb can mean moving quickly or stuck fast, not moving at all.
Florid can mean red-face, or excessively detailed or intricate
To Garnish is to add a decorative touch, such as a lemon slice, to food, but it can also mean to take away, as with wages.
To Help can mean to assist, but in the phrase ‘I can’t help doing it’, it means prevent myself from doing it.
Impregnable can mean invulnerable and also vulnerable to impregnation.
Liberal generally means progressive or free thinking, but it can also refer to mean hard-right and conservative politics, as in neo-liberal.
Literally can mean exactly true but also when emphasised as not actually true.
Off can mean activated or beginning to make a noise as in ‘the alarm went off’, but it can also be deactivated or stop operating as in ‘the alarm turned off by itself’.
Old can refer to something in its past state or its later state.
Oversight is to supervise, but also to not notice something.
To Peruse can mean to read thoroughly and to skim over.
A Private in the military is anything but.
Quite can mean absolutely as in ‘I’m quite alright, thank you’ or merely to an extent as in ‘It’s quite cold outside’.
To Refrain can mean either non-action or the repetition of an action as in a musical score.
To Replace can mean to place back where it was or substitute with something else.
Rather can mean anything from to a minor degree to a significant extent.
Reservation could be either a firm commitment or a hesitation about something. ‘Will you be dining there tonight?’ ‘Yes, we have reservations’. Or ‘No, we have reservations’?
Resigned can mean to have signed again or to have quit. The former is sometimes hyphenated as re-signed for clarity.
Restive can mean having difficulty staying still as in restless, or reluctant to move.
To Screen is to show or to conceal.
To Secrete is when a cell or organ secretes something, it brings it forth, but when people secrete treasure or a document, they hide it
To Trim can mean to add edging or to cut away at the edges or ends.
Trip is either a journey or a stumble. If you take a trip running for the train, you won’t catch it.
To Weather is to withstand the elements and to hold fast, but it can mean to wear away or decay due to the elements.
Unqualified can be an unconditional success or without qualifications.
To Wind Up is when you wind up a mechanism to start it, like a clock, or to bring something to an end like a meeting or a speech.
There are also phrases, though not figures of speech, that can have opposite meanings to what they suggest or which mean something quite different. They are termed misnomers. They can also be words that have over time evolved in meaning through what is known as semantic change. There are hundreds of these words. Here is a mixed bag of these words and phrases.
Awful was originally shortened from ‘full of awe” and meant inspiring wonder (or fear), but now has an opposite negative meaning.
Chinese Checkers originated in Germany, not China.
Demagogue used to mean ‘leader of the people’, now it is used to refer to a politician who panders to emotions and prejudice.
Dry Cleaning may not use water, but it does use liquid solvents.
First Degree means least severe in reference to a burn, but most severe in the case of a murder charge, in the USA..
Friendly Fire means weapon fire coming from one’s own side that causes unintended injury or death to one’s own forces.
Hot-water Heater that doesn’t heat hot water.
Koala Bears are marsupials not bears.
Pencil Lead is graphite, a form of carbon.
Panama Hats are made in Ecuador.
Paper Tablecloth and Paper Towels which are no longer made of cloth.
Public School means a privately funded school.
Quantum Leap in physics is the movement of an electron within an atom, a minute change, though it is often taken to mean a large, abrupt change.
Shooting Stars look like falling stars but are actually meteorites that become meteors as they enter the earth’s atmosphere.
Steel Wool, not made of wool, hardly looks like wool
Tin Foil is almost always aluminium.
Misnomers may be phrases that are misleading, they are not what they seem, but oxymorons are intended to be openly contradictory. They are intentional figures of speech in which two contradictory words, or superficially contradictory words, appear together.
accidentally on purpose, act naturally, anarchy rules!, artificial grass, benevolent dictator, confirmed rumour, conspicuous absence, constant change, crash landing, deafening silence, definite maybe, a deliberate accident, a deliberate mistake, a detailed summary, educated guess, electric candles, extinct life, free gift, friendly takeover, fuzzy logic, global village, a good death, harmonious discord, healthy tan, historical present, humane slaughter, insane logic, invisible ink, a jumbo shrimp, a lead balloon, the living dead, loosely sealed, loyal opposition, minor miracle, negative growth, numb sensation, only choice, an open secret, organised chaos, original copy, plastic lemons, random order, riot control, seriously funny, silent scream, static flow, stationary orbit, unbiased opinion, virtual reality, wise fool, working holiday.
Contradiction in Terms
Finally there are contradictions in terms where although there is not the inherent contradiction between two words as there is in an oxymoron, they are still used, usually humorously or satirically, to suggest that the words can’t possibly occur together.
Military intelligence and business ethics are both well-known. The first is often attributed to the actor Groucho Marx, but it was first published in 1931 by a surprising person, John Charteris, the primary intelligence officer for Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the leader of the British Expeditionary Forces during the First World War. In his recollections of the war in 1916 he refers to the dismissive attitude of a statesman toward information obtained via intelligence work saying ‘Curzon did not give much time to Intelligence work. I fancy Military Intelligence to him is a contradiction in terms’.
How about airline food, business park, creation science, easy payments, first strike defence, gourmet sandwich, honest broker, user-friendly?