The phrase lowest common denominator is a phrase that has a meaning opposite to its literal meaning. Are there any other phrases like that? What is the term used for such phrases?

Edit: Obviously, there are endlessly many such examples in the general class of irony; we're looking for phrases that are used in meanings opposite to their literal meaning, but with no hint of sarcasm or irony.

  • possible duplicate of English words that are their own antonyms – Mehper C. Palavuzlar Jan 29 '11 at 17:54
  • 5
    @Mehper: Not quite… this is about phrases, not words. And unlike that question, it is about not about phrases which have two opposite meanings both in use, but about (non-sarcastic) phrases where usage in the literal sense is rare relative to the common usage in the opposite sense. – ShreevatsaR Jan 29 '11 at 17:58
  • 2
    Are there any other phrases like that? Fat chance! – Kosmonaut Jan 29 '11 at 18:27
  • As the author of the auto-antonyms question, I second what @ShreevatsaR says. This question here is quite different indeed. – RegDwigнt Jan 29 '11 at 19:24
  • @Kosmonaut: that's why I included "non-sarcastic" in my comment above yours. :p – ShreevatsaR Jan 29 '11 at 19:31

11 Answers 11


It's not quite "opposite", but decimate is usually used to mean "totally destroyed" rather than "reduced by 10%".

  • Some dictionaries support the common usage, and there is a postulate in military theory that holds that the chance that a unit will break (i.e. lose essentially all of its fighting effectiveness) becomes non-trivial around 10% casualties (though the actual threshold is a matter of morale, training, experience, and group psychology). – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Jan 31 '11 at 18:16
  • Or perhaps "mostly destroyed" (with, oh, say, only about 10% remaining...which would be precisely opposite). – Andy Feb 2 '11 at 17:57
  • As far as I know, decimation was a punishment in in the Roman army: it is historically not directly related to losing men in battle. – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Feb 14 '11 at 16:29
  • Actually, it turns out the meaning of "decimate" as "reduce by 10%" (in general) is a spurious insertion into the dictionary, having never been used that way in English. See here. – ShreevatsaR Mar 14 '11 at 12:54
  • @ShreevatsaR: ok, so it only applies to Roman military unites. But it's still a 10% reduction :) – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Mar 14 '11 at 14:59

The alarm goes off when an intruder enters the house.

It would seem logical that go off means the alarm switches off, but go off means (in this case) begin to sound.


I hate it when people say "I could care less" instead of "couldn't care less." It seems to be more or less acceptable though in conversation.

  • Ah yes, "could care less" is one example of the sort of thing, thanks! (Which, despite occasional claims, is not sarcastic.) – ShreevatsaR Jan 29 '11 at 20:32
  • On the (rare) occasions when I use this phrase, I have taken to saying "as if I could care less". – Hellion Jan 31 '11 at 17:48
  • @jbpjackson Both phrases are correct and acceptable usages. Although the phrases seem to be saying two opposite things, in fact they are the same: it's "I could afford to care less about this because I have no interest" vs. "I couldn't care less about this because I already have lost all interest". – narx Oct 8 '11 at 22:30
  • An opinion: "I could care less" means I care a little, but could care less, whereas "I couldn't care less" means I do not care. – Andrew Savinykh Mar 24 '14 at 1:55

I always found it counter-intuitive that semi is used to refer to tractor-trailers, which are usually the largest vehicles on roads. It makes sense though when you look at the evolution of the term: first there were regular trailers, then semi-trailers lacking front axles and the 18-wheeler trucks used these, and eventually the word "semi" described these enormous trucks.


Perhaps the easiest way for the literal meaning to be the opposite of the intended meaning is for the phrase to have the wrong number of negations. As I'd noticed while answering another question recently, this includes phrases like

"I miss not having him around."

"No head injury is too trivial to ignore."

"You can't fail to miss it."

and of course

"I could care less."

[Credit to jjackson's answer for bringing up "could care less".]


There are a lot of words which may have originally been used ironically but have now totally changed their common meaning, such as "awful" which is literally synonomous with "awesome" but now almost exclusively means "very bad" whereas "awesome" means "very good".


Ironically enough, the word "literally" itself has been evolving (devolving?) into this sort of antithetical usage. See Literally and Decimate misuse.

  • 1
    This one has always literally driven me insane! – prash Feb 13 '12 at 23:59

My desktop is on the floor and my laptop is on the desk.


There are a number of words and phrases that at least partly contradict their literal meanings. In addition to what others have already given there are the following:

  1. I was amused to find out, many years ago, while talking with the night watchman of the campus, that when he radioed that an area had been “secured”, it meant that he was no longer patrolling it.
  2. “oil production” – that is, obtaining petroleum – is really oil extraction. Man is not “producing” the oil, only extracting it.
  3. “left-brained” / “right-brained” actually mean the opposite of their names, because the two halves of the brain actually control the opposite sides of the body.
  4. There’s nothing funny about hitting your funny bone.
  5. We drive on the parkway, and we park on the driveway.
  6. “uptown” can mean “downtown”
  7. The “Coriolis Force” is not really a force, but an artifact of the Earth’s motion.
  8. “tight” to mean “drunk” is much closer in meaning to “loose” (as in “three sheets to the wind”)
  9. “now” is sometimes used to mean “then”.
  10. The North Pole is really the South Pole. (That is why it attracts the “north” end of a magnet.)
  11. Mathematics is really Psychology. Psychology is really Biology. Biology is really Chemistry. Chemistry is really Physics. Physics is really Mathematics.
  12. Within America, “Yankee” means “Northerner”, but outside of America, “Yankee” means “American”.
  13. A “guinea pig” is neither a pig, nor from New Guinea.
  14. An egg plant has nothing to do with eggs.
  15. A sleeper cell (of infiltrators) is quite alert at all times.
  16. The Canary Islands are not named for birds, but for dogs.
  17. French fries are not named for France.
  18. Friendly fire isn’t.
  19. Hyper-correctness is actually a form of error.
  20. “overlook” is not a synonym of “oversee” but of “forget”
  21. A “random variable” (in Probability Theory) is itself not random, but rather a highly specific assignment (function) defined on the sample space.
  22. “weight” is commonly accepted as a synonym for “mass”, but in fact they are distinct notions.
  23. An object in “free fall” can actually be rising. (“Free fall” simply means that gravitation is the only force acting on the body (neglecting air resistance, of course). So, when you toss a ball upwards, it is in “free fall” from the moment it leaves your hand.)
  24. An elevator (and escalator) gives you a ride downwards as well as upwards.
  25. A private (in the military) is anything but.
  26. The formula for compound interest does not give you the compound interest (but the entire future value of the investment).

Also, George Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm” contains many contradictory terms which, from the standpoint of the novel, are literal, not ironic.


In a press release during the American interdiction of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Rear Admiral John Stufflebeem was quoted as saying, in relation to a Taliban fighter who claimed to be an American citizen: “He is in control of US military forces”.

By inference from the context, it was apparent that what he really meant was “under the control of US military forces”

Well, thank heavens for that! is all I can say...

Another example: Hilary Clinton's use of 'underscore' to mean 'under-score' which can be confusing in the negative (from memory, something like ‘we can’t underscore the importance of this development in Pakistan” (APR 2009).

(Made worse by the use of "can't" where I think she really meant "shouldn't".)

In UK spoken English (and usually, it seems to me, in the US), the latter is differentiated from the former not just by a momentary interruption to the flow, but by putting the emphasis on 'score' rather than 'un'.


These probably all fall under the banner of irony.

the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of [the] literal meaning

What, you think you can't express a negative with two positives? Yeah, right! (as Brian Hooper notes above).

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.