What is the name for words that are contrasting counterparts or near opposites to each other in some context, but are not generally strict antonyms?

Some examples with word1 word2 (example context):

  • boys girls (sex or gender roles)
  • man machine (discussion of technological division of labor)
  • data control (standard digital hardware architecture)
  • plants animals (high-school level cellular biology)
  • shoes socks (standard layers of footwear)
  • weapons armor (two distinct types of equipment in a game)

Per Wikipedia entry Opposite (semantics), pairs of words that are complementary in meaning within a context are called relational antonyms.

Quote from the entry:

A relational antonym is one of a pair of words with opposite meanings, where opposite makes sense only in the context of the relationship between the two meanings. There is no lexical opposite of teacher, but teacher and pupil are opposite within the context of their relationship.

(emphasis mine)

This term is relevant for the first few examples given (certainly boys-girls, arguably also man-machine and data-control; with some simplification (forgetting about fungi for the moment) also plants-animals). I cannot think of a context where shoes and socks would be relational antonyms.

A related post at Linguistics.SE provides further, if somewhat opinionated, discussion of a closely related topic, namely, how to classify the pair mother-father. A document linked in one of the comments, authored by Rick Morneau, quotes Lexical Semantics by D.A. Cruse (Cambridge University Press, 1986) for the following finer classification of antonyms (two items from a list):

Relational: doctor-patient, predator-prey, parent-child
Counterparts: male-female, ridge-groove, heaven-hell


These are referred to as collocations. A nice informal definition:

A collocation is two or more words that often go together. These combinations just sound "right" to native English speakers, who use them all the time.

Wikipedia has a much weightier take on the subject.

  • I've always understood collocation to refer to words that come in sequence (like crystal clear), not words that are simply counterparts to one another. – user13141 Nov 16 '11 at 9:40
  • You may be right; I think I latched onto the OP's "man machine" example and ran with that. The OP's examples aren't quite cooccurrences either, though. – Gnawme Nov 16 '11 at 17:28
  • Collocations refers to juxtaposition as commonly found in writing etc rather than general association of words. Entries in a thesaurus are grouped in lists showing tighter or looser semantic association; Franklin calls these 'classmates' (eg cutlery / knife / fork / silver ...). Neither collocations nor classmates need involve antonyms. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 7 '15 at 17:25

dichotomy:a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.

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