This question was originally posted here: What is the term for a word that has come to mean the opposite of its orignal meaning?

I don't think it should have been marked as a duplicate: the "duplicate" question was asking about auto-antonyms/contronyms; however, this question refers to words that no longer hold their original meaning (I'm almost sure, necessarily via misuse). Whereas contronyms can mean two, opposite things, the type of words we're asking about no longer hold two meanings; they just mean one thing opposite to what they originally meant.

[This question might be better for meta. In which case, I'd appreciate if somebody with the requisite points posts it there].

I came across this question while wondering about the verb "Nonplus," or specifically about the passive participle, "Nonplussed." I've (mis)used the word, intending to mean "not at all affected or surprised," and have been understood, although it means the exact opposite.

So I'm re-opening this question!

Update to clarify some good points brought up in the comments to the initial post:

I'm referring to words whose actual meanings over time have changed to their initial meaning's opposites, not those whose connotations have switched from positive to negative or vice versa (as with "condescension," as Phil mentioned, or "innovation").

Another comment asked if there was an example of a word that lost its old meaning entirely. I think I found one: "hussy," according to this article, used to mean the mistress of a household, or housewife, which, to my mind, is an antonym for what it now means. A better example is the phrase "hoity-toity." See this link for more on Michael Quinion's blog. I would post more links, specifically, to issues 802, 803, 851, and 852 of his Newsletter for mentions of "hoi polloi," whose misuse to mean the upper classes is becoming more prevalent, but I don't have enough points to post more than two links...

  • 1
    For what it's worth: Danish has a word for this phenomenon. The Danish word is "pendulord", which literally translates as "pendulum word". I don't know if this term is known in English, but I think it describes the concept nicely. – oz1cz May 8 '16 at 15:48
  • 3
    Can you give an example of a word which now means solely (and not more commonly) the opposite of A (its original meaning) rather than now carrying both senses? – Edwin Ashworth May 8 '16 at 15:50
  • When was the last time condescension carried a virtuous, take-the-high-moral-ground connotation? The meaning of the act not having reversed so much as our society having reversed it's norms. However, I'm not feeling too sanguine that it ticks all the boxes. – Phil Sweet May 8 '16 at 17:26
  • 1
    @Edwin Ashworth - Wishes were once a way to curse the recipient of the wish. The wish (the name of the individual) was inscribed on a bit of lead and tossed into a wishing well so as to descend closer to Hades. There the wish could be better acted upon by the bottom dwellers. Now, wishes are thought to bring a positive outcome for the recipient. – Stan May 9 '16 at 7:54
  • 1
    A colleague suggested this might be a case of "semantic bleaching" – shdrums9 May 9 '16 at 16:32

I can't believe I found this answer, but acceptable terms were coined in the 1960's- contranym and autantoym

The wikipedia article is title auto-antonym, which was coined at the same time.


Queen Anne when looking at the beautiful new St. Paul's Cathedral, called it "awful, artificial and amusing".

Awful meaning awe inspiring.
Artificial meaning artistic.
Amusing meaning thought provoking.

The linguistic term for what happened to these words is pejoration. It specifically refers to when a term moves from being positive to negative over time, eventually losing its positive meaning entirely.

In linguistics there have been many attempts to categorize semantic shift, which is a much broader concept than merely definitions changing to the opposite. The closest terms that really refer to opposites though are probably amelioration and pejoration.

  • OP stresses 'this question refers to words that no longer hold their original meaning'. << **Boy**—Noun; Pejoration and Connotative Shift A male child Boy's emotional meaning went through a pejorative change. The literal meaning is a young male person, but over time, the connotative meaning has taken on a racist and disrespectful undertone. Semantic Changes 17 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4 th Edition, www.dictionary.com. (2000) Houghton Mifflin Company >> allows for ... – Edwin Ashworth Mar 17 at 17:20
  • 'pejoration' to refer when negative senses develop while the original sense persists. Have you a reference using a stipulative definition narrowing to the 'wholesale change in the meaning of a word' rather than the 'development of an additional, pejorative sense' sense AHD champions? // 'Pejoration', 'amelioration', broadening' etc have already been covered on ELU. There is no need for a 'strictly opposite' meaning with pejoration or amelioration. As is shown by say 'artificial' and 'artistic', hardly antonyms. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 17 at 17:26
  • I am not a linguist, but my understanding is the above example illustrates a linguistic phenomenon that occurs frequently, specifically a word shifting its meaning to a negative, almost opposite definition over time. In fact, there's a family of classifications all dealing with semantic shift covered briefly here: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semantic_change – chub500 Mar 19 at 3:12
  • There is a slight semantic difference between the linguistic sense of amelioration and pejoration and the colloquial one I believe. This article gives the linguistic sense of the term clearly: thoughtco.com/amelioration-word-meanings-1689082 – chub500 Mar 19 at 3:31
  • Ullmann seems the only one mentioned in the Wikipedia article who suggests the terms 'amelioration' and 'pejoration', and the definitions are rise/loss of quality, not total reversal of sense. eg, to pinch one of Bloomfield's examples ... 'knight': "boy" → "nobleman". It is Blank who mentions a 'change of a word's sense and concept to the complementary opposite' class, but he labels this 'auto-antonymy'. And note McMahon's observation from the Nordquist article: 'Sometimes amelioration involves weakening of an originally strongly negative meaning.' -10 ➝ -3. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 19 at 15:39

@Karlomanio has answered the question. The word is autantonym or contranym.

I would like to add an example.

Egregious is a word which used to mean remarkably good. Now, it means truly bad.

  • Can you provide references please? – jimm101 May 3 '19 at 12:56
  • 1
    Thanks, I added it to your answer. If you review the submission guidelines, a link to definitions of autantonym and contranym are required, or you may get close voted. If you provide them in comments, I can add them. – jimm101 May 6 '19 at 11:05
  • Thanks! I shall keep that in mind. – Adarsha May 7 '19 at 12:14

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.