I'd like to rationalise its startling "opposite" definition which acknowledges that "The original sense, 'inclined to remain still', has undergone a reversal." What induced this change?

Moreover, is there a term for such words with ostensibly contradictory definitions to their appearance? This all induces me to think about "false friends," but here I'm asking only about English, and not comparing between 2 languages.


The etymology of the word restive(adj.) shows that its meaning evolved around the end of the 17th century:

early 15c., restyffe "not moving forward," from Middle French restif "motionless, brought to a standstill" (Modern French rétif), from rester "to remain" (see rest (n.2)). Sense of "unmanageable" (1680s) evolved via notion of a horse refusing to go forward.

Semantic change: describes the evolution of words usage, usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original one.


Another fun word in this category is cleave which means both to adhere together and to separate!

He cleaves the log with his axe vs He cleaves closely to his principles

  • At least you can generally figure cleave out from context. Not so with sanguine. I know the "bloodthirsty" meaning is supposedly archaic, but I swear I've seen multiple authors use it that way. Its often three or four sentences later that I figure out from context which was meant. Then I have to go back and read the whole passage again to fully understand those sentences in the now understood context of the first. IMHO the word should be banned until folks can settle on one meaning. – T.E.D. Jun 16 '14 at 12:29
  • @T.E.D. according to this you can blame crazy medieval understandings of physiology for your troubles. Personally I have only encountered the word in reference to bloodthirstiness. Given the Latin for bloodthirsty (sanguinarius) I find the archaic meaning far more reasonable than the Middle English! [as a side note, how did you do the greybox on sanguine?] – Sam Jun 16 '14 at 13:00

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