What is Antonymy?


The semantic qualities or sense relations that exist between words (lexemes) with opposite meanings in certain contexts (i.e., antonyms). Plural antonymies. Contrast with synonymy.

The term antonymy was introduced by C.J. Smith in his book Synonyms and Antonyms (1867).

Pronunciation: an-TON-eh-me


"Antonymy is a key feature of everyday life. Should further evidence be required, try visiting a public lavatory without checking which is the 'gents' and which is the 'ladies.' On your way out, ignore the instructions which tell you whether to 'push' or 'pull' the door. And once outside, pay no attention to whether traffic lights are telling you to 'stop' or 'go.' At best, you will end up looking very foolish; at worst, you will end up dead.

"Antonymy holds a place in society which other sense relations simply do not occupy. Whether or not there exists a 'general human tendency to categorize experience in terms of dichotomous contrast' ([John] Lyons 1977: 277) is not easily gauged, but, either way, our exposure to antonymy is immeasurable: we memorise 'opposites' in childhood, encounter them throughout our daily lives, and possibly even use antonymy as a cognitive device to organise human experience." (Steven Jones, Antonymy: A Corpus-Based Perspective. Routledge, 2002)

Antonymy and Synonymy

"For the better-known European languages at least, there are a number of dictionaries 'of synonyms and antonyms' available, which are frequently used by writers and students to 'extend their vocabulary' and achieve a greater 'variety of style.' The fact that such special dictionaries are found useful in practice is an indication that words can be more or less satisfactorily grouped into sets of synonyms and antonyms. There are two points that should be stressed, however, in this connexion. First, synonymy and antonymy are semantic relations of a very different logical nature: 'oppositeness of meaning' (love:hate, hot:cold, etc.) is not simply the extreme case of difference of meaning. Second, a number of distinctions have to be drawn within the traditional concept of 'antonymy': dictionaries of 'antonyms' are only successful in practice to the degree that their users draw these distinctions (for the most part unreflectingly)." (John Lyons, Introduction to Theoretical Linguistics. Cambridge University Press, 1968)

Antonymy and Word Classes

"Oppositeness . . . has an important role in structuring the vocabulary of English. This is especially so in the adjective word class, where a good many words occur in antonymous pairs: e.g. long-short, wide-narrow, new-old, rough-smooth, light-dark, straight-crooked, deep-shallow, fast-slow. While antonymy is typically found among adjectives it is not restricted to this word class: bring-take (verbs), death-life (nouns), noisily-quietly (adverbs), above-below (prepositions), after-before (conjunctions or prepositions). . . .

"English can also derive antonyms by means of prefixes and suffixes. Negative prefixes such as dis-, un- or in- may derive an antonym from the positive root, e.g. dishonest, unsympathetic, infertile. Compare also: encourage-discourage but entangle-disentangle, increase-decrease, include-exclude." (Howard Jackson and Etienne Zé Amvela, Words, Meaning and Vocabulary: An Introduction to Modern English Lexicology. Continuum, 2000)

Canonical Opposites

"[W]hile antonymy is variable (i.e., context dependent), particular antonym pairs are often canonical in that they are known without reference to context. . . . For example, the color senses of black and white are opposed and so are their racial senses and their 'good'/'evil' senses as in white magic and black magic. Canonicity of antonym relations also plays a role in context-specific antonymy. As Lehrer (2002) notes, if a frequent or basic sense of a word is in a semantic relation with another word, that relation can be extended to other senses of the word. For example, the basic temperature sense of hot contrasts with cold. While cold does not usually mean 'legally acquired,' it can have that meaning when contrasted (with enough context) with hot in its 'stolen' sense, as in (9).

He traded in his hot car for a cold one. (Lehrer 2002)

For readers to understand the intended sense of cold in (9), they must know that cold is the usual antonym of hot. Next they must deduce that if cold is the antonym of hot, then no matter what hot is used to mean in this context, cold means the opposite thing. The stability of some such antonym pairs across senses and contexts is evidence that those antonymic pairings are canonical." (M. Lynne Murphy, Semantic Relations and the Lexicon. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Antonymy and Word-Association Testing

"If a stimulus has a common 'opposite' (an antonym), it will always elicit that opposite more often than anything else. These responses are the most frequent found anywhere in word association." (H.H. Clark, "Word Associations and Linguistic Theory." New Horizons in Linguistics, ed. by J. Lyons. Penguin, 1970)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What is Antonymy?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-antonymy-1688992. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What is Antonymy? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-antonymy-1688992 Nordquist, Richard. "What is Antonymy?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-antonymy-1688992 (accessed June 7, 2023).