According to google etymology the word restive originally meant inclined to remain still. But then it changed the meaning to the opposite.

I would like to know if such phenomenon of revresal happens often in English, especially with words that finish with "ive" (plaintive, fugitive,...)

  • 1
    I've wondered at the counterintuitive meaning of "restive" myself, so +1 for an interesting question (though you might want to add a link/source for the etymology). I don't think there's anything special going on with "-ive"; both "plaintive" and "fugitive" seem like straightforward extensions of their respective roots to me (consider complain and plaintiff or tempus fugit etc).
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 11:39
  • When this happens, it's literally awful Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 23:52
  • @user568458: Terrible or terrific, depending on your view.
    – Drew
    Commented Sep 16, 2014 at 2:04

3 Answers 3


No, such reversals are not common; they are quite rare, in fact. Plaintive still connects directly to (com)plaint and fugitive still connects directly to the root also found in refuge, etc., with no reversal of meaning.

In the case of restive, it’s not that the word just suddenly happened to reverse its meaning, either. The development is actually quite logical.

The original meaning was indeed ‘resting, not inclined to move’, but the word was especially used of horses refusing to move—that typical scenario where you’re riding a horse and the horse balks at some hurdle or obstacle in the road. It refuses to go on, it becomes restive; but it doesn’t just stand still, quite at rest: it starts fidgeting back and forth, making odd little jumps and bumps this way and that.

So in comparison to the intended goal (running on and jumping over the obstacle), the horse has stopped and become restive; but in comparison to a horse that’s standing quite still and just chewing on some nice grass, the restive horse looks nervous, jumpy, and fidgety.

In time, restive started to be taken as an opposite state to the latter of these two, rather than the former: it became to fidget, be jumpy, be unable to stand quite still, and lost its original meaning of just being still as opposed to in motion.


It is not common. Examples include:

  • parboil (now meaning partially boil, formerly thoroughly boil)
  • sanguine (formerly meaning hot-headed, now happy-go-lucky)

I cannot think of any -ive examples. I am not aware of any systematic surveys of this, but it is rare enough to be remarkable.

Cleave is also interesting. By two different etymologies (as cleft, and as clave) it can mean wrenched apart and pushed together, and both senses have existed since Old English (Edit: though they were not originally homonyms). While this gives brassiere manufacturers a great deal of scope, you do have to wonder at whether the word remains useful.

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    Both sense have existed since Old English, but the two verbs were not homonyms in Old English. The ‘wrench apart’ sense was (as still) a class 2 strong verb clēofan, whereas the ‘stick to’ sense was a weak verb cleofian (also clīfian). I don’t think they coalesced in the present-stem forms until Late Middle English (though I could be off in my relative reckonings there); and at any rate, they’re still at least partly distinct in the non-present forms: they clove/cleft/cleaved it in twain, but he cleaved/*clove/*cleft to his beliefs. Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 16:38
  • Thanks @JanusBahsJacquet. I didn't realise they were not homonyms in OE: I'll update my answer. Also, only cleft can be used transitively and they can be distinguished by any accompanying preposition. I was being a little hyperbolic, wasn't I? :-)
    – Dan
    Commented Sep 14, 2014 at 16:40

The meaning did indeed shift (as Janus Bahs Jacquet explains very clearly), but it did not reverse; it only seems that way because you are reading restive as "restful". In Latinate languages, the verbs rester, restare etc. do not mean "to rest" but "to remain". Thus, restive originally meant "tending to remain", but in the sense of obstinately refusing to move. Over time, the signified portion of behaviour shifted from the remaining (in a jumpy manner) to the jumpiness. This kind of shift is ubiquitous: all of our words originally meant something different, and etymology is the excavation of dead and dying metaphor.

The -if/-ive ending is nothing special in itself, and adds nothing to this story. It's just an adjectival ending that is used to make adjectives with the sense of "tending to" from nouns and some verbs. See here: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/-ive.

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