I remember once hearing a theory--first promoted, I believe, by Freud--that words develop to mean their opposite, and that eventually the new, antithetical definition takes primacy.

Cleave is a mid-process example, as cleave currently means both to join and to separate.

Fast is another example, as it comes from feast.

I don't really care so much about the authenticity of these etymologies but would like to know the history and name of this theory. Was it Freud? Where can I read more about it?

This is related to auto-antonyms, and I have read the wiki article there. That does not address the theory that a word develops its own antonym.

  • Since fast doesn't come from the same root as feast, it's not a good example. Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 6:12
  • @PeterShor Thanks for the input. My question is less, however, about the specific etymologies than the overall theory. Cleave and cleave also come from different roots. These two words, however, were the examples given when I heard the theory.
    – Unrelated
    Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 6:46
  • 1
    So 'words develop to mean their opposites' might be less accurate than 'sometimes homonyms arise having near-opposite meanings'? Commented Dec 15, 2013 at 7:32

1 Answer 1


When the significance of a word evolves and departs from its original meaning this is often referred to semantic change or semantic shift.

For example, awful

Awful—Originally meant "inspiring wonder (or fear)". Used originally as a shortening for "full of awe", in contemporary usage the word usually has negative meaning.


Not exactly opposite in meaning but nevertheless its history illustrates how a word can change its meaning totally

Gentle was borrowed in Middle English in the sense of ‘born of a good-family, with a higher social standing’. Later the sense ‘courteous’ and then ‘kind, mild in manners’ developed because these qualities were regarded as qualities of the upper classes.

The author, Raymond Hickey, then goes on to explain

BAD MEANINGS REPLACE GOOD MEANINGS Pejoration is more usual than amelioration, i.e there are more instances of words developing a negative meaning than the opposite case. ... The word churl stems from a Germanic root meaning ‘man’ and came to mean ‘a peasant, someone of low birth’ and later still ‘an ill-bred person’. The root is still to be seen in the adjective churlish ‘mean, despicable’.

Scroll to the end of the page, whereupon a short list of linguistic books handling the subject of semantic change are recommended.

Semantic change as discussed on the website, Studying the History of English.

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