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Somewhat related to this question, I am curious to know what words in English would seem to be opposites at first blush but are in fact synonyms?

Immediately I can think of flammable and inflammable.

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6 Answers 6

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  • regardless and irregardless (although some don't consider irregardless a real word)
  • bone and debone
  • press and depress
  • caregiver and caretaker
  • ravel and unravel

some related examples in slang. These use the same word, but mean the opposite:

  • shit and the shit
  • bollocks and the bollocks, or the dog's bollocks
  • a bomb and the bomb
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    I'll add "privation" and "deprivation" here.
    – rumtscho
    Commented Apr 29, 2011 at 21:21
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    I'll add habitable and inhabitable here, too.
    – fbrereto
    Commented Mar 1, 2013 at 20:09
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    And in nonspecialist usage, referring to the stringed instrument, bass and contrabass. As for same word near-opposite meanings, I nominate sanction (approval) and sanction (coercive punishment).
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Sep 30, 2015 at 6:58
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Valuable and invaluable is the only example that comes to mind

http://grammarist.com/usage/invaluable-valuable/

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Though they are of different origin, I would go for 'genius' and 'ingenious', perhaps?

I also have some points to raise from previous answers:

Irregardless is most likely from a combination of 'irrespective' and 'regardless', which are synonyms of each other. Therefore 'irregardless' is seen as an erroneous construction by many, as Sam pointed out.

Also, 'ravel' and 'unravel' are not the same. The phrasal verb 'ravel out' is synonymous with 'unravel' but alone, 'ravel' means to complicate, while 'unravel' in that sense would mean 'make clear something that was complicated'.

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  • Ravel: To become untwisted or unwoven; to be disentangled; to be relieved of intricacy. I've seen it most in connection to fabrics they tend to ravel. I would also suggest that words are constantly coming into use by people misusing old words. Eventually, if enough people use it incorrectly, it becomes correct. Language is not a fixed thing.
    – Sam
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 15:02
  • I'm not sure what dictionary you are using, Sam. Could you point me to it, please? As I understand, the word is of Germanic origin, 'ravelen' - to tangle. Interestingly, its meaning 'to disentangle' is seen in English earlier than 'to entangle' but still combined with the word 'out'
    – Karl
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 15:12
  • Shakespeare: must I rauell out My weau'd-vp follyes (King Richard II - 1593)
    – Karl
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 15:14
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    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ravel Ravel seems to be one of those special words that can mean opposite things, e.g. cleave and cleave.
    – Sam
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 15:19
  • Thanks for that, Sam. I was hunting myself at the same time and came across several definitions, most of which linked back to Mirriam Webster. With that link in mind, it would appear I have to concede, though with the Caveat that M-W is an AmEng dictionary and I am British. I would hazard to say that this is one of those words on which we differ in usage (assuming you are American?). Nevertheless, it appears that 'ravel' can indeed mean both. Thanks again, Sam.
    – Karl
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 15:24
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The answer to this one might be "false friends." The term refers to cases where a word in a foreign language is deceptively similar to one in your native tongue and leads you thus astray. Here the case is a bit different but I could see extending the sense a bit.

Another example in the same class is the word "enervate," where the Latinate prefix (as with "in" in "inflammable") has a meaning that leads the unknowing speaker down the wrong path.

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    False friends refers to when two words, each from a different language look the same or similar but mean different things, as you correctly said. But I don't think it's really related to the question, since calling "flammable" and "inflammable" false friends might be misleading, in my opinion. Correct me if I'm wrong...
    – Alenanno
    Commented Apr 3, 2011 at 13:04
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What is the term for this phenomenon? Another one I have heard suggested: Overtone/Undertone.

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Don't you think shameful and shameless are actually synonyms?

It's really interesting to see this pair of words utilizing the commonly known -ful and -less suffixes.

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