Want to know if there is a collective word to describe these kind of words that change their meanings in an opposite way (rather than irrelevantly) when a single letter is added/removed/changed so that I can look them up. Otherwise can you provide some examples here? e.g. appeal <> appal

  • I doubt there's a word for what would be an enormous class of words that aren't really related in any meaningful way apart from this. There are lots of examples where you start with, say, a nine-letter word, and then remove one letter at a time, making unrelated new words by doing so, all the way down to the last letter. Never seen a word for it. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 9 '15 at 0:14
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    Are there any other examples that you're already aware of? I'm having trouble thinking of any. Also, before seeing it in the pair you provided (appeal/appal), I was unaware that appall had the alternate spelling with only one "l." The fact that removing the letter "e" from <appeal> gives us the opposite-meaning <appal(l)> seems entirely coincidental (the words are etymologically unrelated). At any rate, if you (or others) can track down more pairs like this and post them, it would surely be helpful in finding the collective word for them, assuming that it exists. – pyobum Jan 9 '15 at 7:12
  • @pyobum A good example (which was posted by Calculemus in a now-deleted answer) is startlings > startling > starting > staring > string > sting > sing > sin > in > I. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 9 '15 at 18:37
  • @Janus Removing one letter at a time from a long(er) word until there's only one letter left is a "brain game" I used to play when I was younger to pass the time when traveling/waiting, and I would be interested to find out if there is any name for that as well. I got the impression that user1589188's question is not about reducing words one letter at a time (resulting in a new word each time), but rather pairs of words that are one letter different (either through addition, deletion, or substitution) and have opposite meanings. I still haven't thought of any pair(s) to fit the bill though. – pyobum Jan 12 '15 at 6:53

A whole class of words have this characteristic on the strength of their having adapted the Greek alpha-privative prefix into English, such that a- means "not." This arrangement leads to single-letter-based meaning reversals in word pairs like biogenesis/abiogenesis, chromatic/achromatic, gnostic/agnotic, historical/ahistorical, moral/amoral, political/apolitical, sexual/asexual, synchronous/asynchronous, theistic/atheistic, tonal/atonal, and typical/atypical.

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    I don't really think this is what OP was talking about...but I think the original question is actually kind of silly. +1 for addressing it well. – Dave Magner Jan 13 '15 at 17:49
  • Thanks for noting the a- class of words, that really helped me to collect more word pairs. Since you are the only one who can provide some examples, I will pick yours as answer. – user1589188 Jan 14 '15 at 11:16

We have various labels to describe the insertion/deletion/alteration of sounds within a word: Epenthesis (related: infix), Elision (related: disfix), Syncope, and others. But these concepts generally apply due to morphological or prosaic reasons. However, given your example of appal and appeal, it seems to me that you are asking about words that do not change by mere affixation or contraction. Otherwise, @SvenYargs gave a perfect example of such a class of words.

I do not believe there is a named and identifiable class of antonyms which differ by a single letter. My reasoning is that such a class of words is too narrowly defined to be meaningful to linguistic analysis.

That said, your example of appal and appeal is no less intriguing. I first discounted their relevance because their Old French etymologies are unrelated. However, they are ultimately derived from Latin, and their Latin roots also differ by a single letter, though in different way:

  • appeal - from Latin /ad + pellere/ 'to beat or drive'
  • appal - from Latin /ad + pallere/ 'to turn pale'

This last bit may not add to the discussion, but it is curious that these Latin antonyms differ by a single phonogram. Might there be others?

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  • I actually like your effort in digging deep to the Latin root, although that is out of my interest, it is really an interesting piece of information. – user1589188 Jan 14 '15 at 11:12
  • My heart tells me to give the award to you, so be it :) – user1589188 Jan 14 '15 at 11:20
  • @user1589188 Awww.. Thanks! I enjoyed it. – Clumsy Jan 14 '15 at 20:39
  • 'appal' is a word? Can you use it in a sentence? – Mitch May 4 '15 at 18:54
  • @Mitch Appal is very definitely a word. It is the verb form and root word of appalled. If you are questioning the spelling, it is arguable that appall is the more common spelling in recent years, but both are acceptable. Here's an example: "Gaddafi had the ability to amaze and appal, to shock and amuse, simultaneously and in equal measure." Taken from an article in 2011: theguardian.com/world/2011/aug/23/libya-gaddafi-vicious-despot – Clumsy May 5 '15 at 23:56

I´m not sure if this is what you are looking for but I thought of homely, comely. One letter change and exact opposite in meaning.

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