The Curious Case of Lost Opposites


“We are walking lexicons. In a single sentence of idle chatter

we preserve Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse;

we carry a museum inside our heads,

each day we commemorate peoples of whom we have never heard.”

Penelope Lively

Since you’re a walking lexicon: What’s the opposite of immediate? What’s the opposite of ruthless? What’s the opposite of exhume? If you answered with words like eventual, caring, or bury, you’d be right – in today’s world. But if you had lived back in the 1400’s – or even the 1800’s – your answer might have been different. And if you’re a word lover like me, well . . .

While doing research this week, I discovered that some common English words have lost their original opposites – or we rarely use them. Consider these curious opposites.

immediate – mediate

ruthless – ruthful

exhume – inhume

inclement – clement

inevitable – evitable

emancipate – mancipate

invincible – vincible

inalienable – alienable

impervious – pervious

accommodate – discommodate

impeccable – peccable

income – outgo

ungainly – gainly


So . . . may your way be gainly, your weather clement, and your income greater than your outgo.

I’ll leave you with this to chew on:

“The opposite of faith is not doubt, it’s certainty.”

Richard Holloway

In English Through the Ages, you can find these and other long-lost English words and discover when many of our words were first used.

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Text © 2018 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.

Photos courtesy

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