To make things short, let's look at

famous -- infamous, glorious -- inglorious

The two pairs both illustrate what I temporarily refer to as "over-negation", in the sense that, for example, in the case of "normal" negation, infamous would mean little-known instead of notorious which is somewhat much stronger than just negating the original word famous. Same with the pair glorious-inglorious.

Is such "over-negation" a real grammatical phenomenon or simply coincidence? And if it's really more than coincidence, what's the proper terminology to refer to such a phenomenon?

  • What does the Online Etymology Dictionary say about the origins of the English words 'infamy' and 'inglorious'? Jul 29, 2016 at 17:26
  • @EdwinAshworth all right. I come to realise there's another word unfamous which seems to be the "exact negation" of famous, but things are completely different when we change the prefix to in. But that's still strange because, as is shown in the dictionary, in still means nothing more than without.
    – Vim
    Jul 29, 2016 at 17:33
  • 'The dictionary'? [At least] one of the other dictionaries {Dictionary.com} is more accurate: <<in- [sense 3] 1. a prefix of Latin origin, corresponding to English un-, having a negative or privative force....>> Etymon says that infamy arrived directly from Latin infamia "ill fame, bad repute, dishonor" and so in- already carried the negative rather than or in addition to the privative force in at least some Latin words. It also has <<inglorious "with bad fame, dishonorable," ... from in- (1) "not, opposite of" >>, again showing the negative force. Jul 29, 2016 at 21:51
  • @EdwinAshworth: I think Vim is interested in the phaenomenon in general, not only in the development of a specific negation; and I think there is more to it than this. Jul 30, 2016 at 0:19
  • @EdwinAshworth I see. Now tracing back on my thoughts motivating this question, I feel there's a subtle cultural difference between English and the language I speak. For instance in English perhaps famous connotes good reputation, and hence it's not surprising to see infamous as (at least one of its antonyms); in my language though, the standard translation of famous is somewhat a neutral word which only means well-known, whether the reputation is good or bad.
    – Vim
    Jul 30, 2016 at 0:55

1 Answer 1


This is a good question. What you discribe is a common phaenomenon, at least in Indo-European languages. Consider how the words immoral and amoral have arbitrarily divided the two possible meanings of "not moral" between them. Compare also inordinate and unordered. The issue here is that it is often not unambiguously clear what comprises the negation or opposite of a concept. The prefix in- creates a word that negates or opposes the original word. But what does negation entail exactly?

Suppose you had a collection of two concepts: hot and cold. Then uncold means it must be hot.

But, if you are aware of the concepts "hot, lukewarm, neutral, cool, cold", then uncold could mean "hot, lukewarm, neutral, or cool", or it could mean "hot": it depends on your interpretation of what the available options are, and on what the opposite of cold is. If I replace uncold with not cold, then you are probably even less likely to think it must mean "hot".

Hot and cold are relatively simple concepts that have clear opposites. What if I say not men, without specifying what collection you should pick from? Does that mean "children"? Or "women"? Or "gods"?

In order to interpret "not x" or "the opposite of x", you need context, a frame of reference. Sometimes the possible interpretations are artificially divided between different suffixes, such as un-, in-, and a-. See also this question:

What types of antonyms are there?


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