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I can be nonplussed (in fact that is practically the ground state of my existence), but not plussed. I can also be indifferent; but if you are different, that doesn't mean you care, either. What do you call it when a word looks like the negation of another word but is not? The kind of words that Terry Pratchett takes delight in?

(possible 2nd question) I had started by looking up wittingly, seeing that I've never seen it used except in the phrase "wittingly or unwittingly", or ironically, as the opposite of unwittingly. There might even be another class of word like "wittingly", words that are only ever used with their opposite.

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Don't forget "inflammable," which means the same thing as "flammable"... –  kitukwfyer May 28 '11 at 15:42
I extend this question to pertain to French for those interested: linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/11743/5306 –  LePressentiment Mar 16 at 1:50

2 Answers 2

up vote 17 down vote accepted

It seems they are called Unpaired Words (maybe the best definition) or Absent Antonyms.

Unpaired Words
An unpaired word is one that, according to the usual rules of the language, would appear to have a related word but does not. Such words usually have a prefix or suffix that would imply that there is an antonym, with the prefix or suffix being absent or opposite. Many unpaired words are the result of one of the words disappearing from popular usage, though others were never part of a pairing and just begin with the same letters as used in common prefixes. The classification of a word as “unpaired” can be problematic, as a word thought to be unattested might reappear in real-world usage

You can find some examples here, but I'll list the majority of them here anyway for easy reference.

  1. Words with no positive forms:
    Debunk; defenestrate; dejected; disconsolate; disdain; disgruntled; dishevelled; dismayed; disrupt; feckless; gormless; impetuous; impromptu; inane; incessant; inchoate; incognito; incommunicado; indomitable; ineffable; inept; inert; infernal; inhibited; insidious; insipid; insouciant; intact; invert; misgivings; misnomer; nonchalant; noncommittal; nondescript; nonpareil; nonplussed; unbeknownst; ungainly; unswerving; untold; untoward.

  2. Words with uncommon positive forms:
    Disarray; disconcerting; immaculate; impeccable; inadvertent; incapacitated; incorrigible; inevitable; innocent; inscrutable; insensate; insufferable; interminable; unbridled; unflappable; unfurl; unkempt; unmitigated; unrequited; unruly; unthinkable; unwieldy.

  3. Suffixes (asterisk means "word not existing"):

    • Reckless/*Reckful
    • Indefatigable/*defatigable -> fatigable
    • Flammable-Inflammable (not antonyms)
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Unpaired Words is nice, and clearly the best answer. –  senderle May 28 '11 at 16:10
One of my favorite words, disambiguate is on the unpaired words list. Can't believe I didn't think of it. –  senderle May 28 '11 at 16:11
Some of them are loanwords, like nonchalant (French) or incommunicado (Spanish). –  Alenanno May 28 '11 at 16:12
Indeed, many of them are! I would venture to guess that almost all of the 'in-' words were borrowed from Latin at some point or another, but I am too lazy to look up the etymology. But disambiguate is a clear example of an unpaired word that is not a loan word, so I'm satisfied. –  senderle May 28 '11 at 16:20
Another minor point: looking over this list again, I have to disagree that debunk is an unpaired word. It just means to remove the bunk(2) from something; the prefix de- may be applied to a noun to denote its removal. Compare declaw, which is not the opposite of to claw, but rather the removal of a claw. –  senderle May 28 '11 at 22:14

I'm not certain what to call them, unless you accept loanwords as the answer. Of course these aren't just any loanwords; these are loanwords from languages that share cognate roots with English. For example, nonplussed and its noun form nonplus come from the Latin words nōn and plūs, meaning "no" and "more"; English has incorporated both non- and nonplus, but not plus. (At least in the sense of the anti-negation of nonplus -- of course English did incorporate plus, but separately, so that the two are unrelated.) So nonplus is the negation of plus, but only in another language!

I'll add that, as Alenanno has demonstrated, not all words with this property are loanwords.

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I don't think "loan words" fit that definition. Loan words are words taken from other languages, and you can't find any "words that look like a negative but they aren't" in their definition. –  Alenanno May 28 '11 at 15:41
That's why I said I didn't know what to call them. But do you disagree that they are loan words, and that their peculiar properties arise from that fact? –  senderle May 28 '11 at 15:42
Some loan words might have that feature, but so can other "normal" words as well! What I meant is that such feature is not peculiar of loan words. –  Alenanno May 28 '11 at 15:45
Perhaps, but the examples JeffSahol offered (wittingly has its own entry in the OED, so I don't count it) all fall into this category; and I can't think of any examples of "normal" words that have this property. I'd be fascinated to learn of some. –  senderle May 28 '11 at 15:47
I'm going to write an answer for this. –  Alenanno May 28 '11 at 15:52

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