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Examples of phantonyms


An informal term for "a word that looks as if it means one thing but means quite another" (Jack Rosenthal).

See also:


Coined by Jack Rosenthal ("On Language: Phantonym," The New York Times, Sep. 25, 2009) on the model of antonym

Examples and Observations:

  • "Phantonyms pop up in the usage of even so careful a speaker as President Obama. As William Safire noted in March, when the president said that he wanted the American people to have “a fulsome accounting” for his stimulus program, he meant full, whereas to punctilious authorities the word means disgusting, excessive, insincere.

    "Likewise, noisome does not mean noisy but smelly, unhealthful. . . .

    "Enervated. Appearances can be deceiving, as when an NPR commentator described the men fighting a fire in Nevada as tired but enervated by their progress. The word, a phantonym of energized, in fact means weakened."
    (Jack Rosenthal, "On Language: Phantonym." The New York Times, Sep. 25, 2009)

  • "[T]he English-speaking world has long relied on self-appointed authorities such as the brothers H.W. and F.G. Fowler and Sir Ernest Gowers in Britain and Theodore Bernstein and William Safire in America, and of course countless others. These figures write books, give lectures, and otherwise do what they can (i.e., next to nothing) to try to stanch (not staunch) the perceived decline of the language. They point out that there is a useful distinction to be observed between uninterested and disinterested, between imply and infer, flaunt and flout, fortunate and fortuitous . . .. And from the highest offices in the land they are ignored."
    (Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. HarperCollins, 1990)
Pronunciation: FAN-toe-nim
Also Known As: loose usage
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