Antagonym is a word invented by Charles Ellis in 1999. Richard Lederer had coined contronyms in in his 1989 book, Crazy English, both words refer a single word with meanings that contradict each other.
Each generation wants to make its mark on the world and one way of doing that is with words. When I was a teenager, to be “kicky” meant you were the bomb (a word that came much later,) the best, the…well you get the idea. I practiced my kickiness in the mirror each day before school, but somehow, someone else had a better handle on it than me. I gave up in my junior year and settled into a much more studious finish to my high school years. (No, not career. High school and college are education, in preparation for a career, unless you spend more than the requisite time allotted toiling away at ye olde alma mater.)
Along with the mark generations make on government, education, and society come words, expressions, or slogans that become a part of our modern lexicon. One of my more recent favorites (not) is “That’s so Rufus,” from the 1999 movie, Never Been Kissed. The Urban Dictionary picked it up – “A word meaning ‘cool’ and ‘awesome’ created by the character ‘Guy’ in the movie Never Been Kissed.” Note the two words used to define rufus. I had a boss named Rufus once. Neither cool nor awesome, unless you refer to the true meaning of awesome – struck fear—then yeah, awesome to the max.
I confess to loving and watching the rufus final scene in Never Been Kissed some twenty or thirty times, but I digress.
Here are a few words that have gotten do-overs (love that one!) while still wearing their old rags:
Eager – now that is a straightforward word, isn’t it? We all know what it means, right? What it doesn’t mean is anxious, which means fretful, nervous, apprehensive. Yet we say, “I’m so anxious to go to that concert,” when in fact, we are eager. Anxious and eager are used interchangeably.
Sick – somehow, apparently as far back as the early ’80s, sick has meant good, great – “That concert was sick.” How does that happen?
Ridiculous – means deserving or inviting derision or mockery; absurd. But it has taken on a contrary meaning. Not by all, but by some.
Bad – meaning good. Equally as baffling.
Kill – as in “You kill that outfit.” Or “Those are killer shoes.” There isn’t anything in the meaning of kill that evokes admiration for clothes or shoes or music, or, or, or… but we hear it every day.
Literally – “I literally died when I heard that joke.” Probably not, else you wouldn’t be here to tell the tale. Literally means precisely, but it has been construed to mean figuratively.
Terrific – once meant extremely bad, now is also defined as extremely good.
There are many words that have contrary meanings, not because they started out that way, but because over time, people have adapted them to fit situations and they’ve stuck. Back in the day (UGH, I so dislike that phrase, mainly because it usually refers to a time that I don’t consider history but part of my life,) cool meant slightly less cold. How it came to mean the epitome of hip (which is a bone,) I’m not sure. I use that one and I like it. Selective antagonismness.
More and more, the contrary meanings of words are creeping into news reports and television shows, which gives them legitimacy. Then as we’ve seen with some words, the contrary meaning is adopted as a meaning of the word. A great example of this is awesome. Used to mean strikes fear, and now it also means great, according to Merriam-Webster.
I don’t doubt that this is a generational thing, where someone younger might not have the same issues with the changing meanings as someone older. Do young people really know that BAD doesn’t mean GOOD, and never has? Do people LITERALLY die when they hear a joke?
And then there’s that whole thing about age appropriateness. Comes a time when proper speech trumps hipster jive.
What do you think? I’m going to take my kicky self out of here so I can change into my literally killer pajamas with sick baby penguins on them. Ridiculous how I love those awesome little guys.
For more on antagonysms, visit Charles Ellis’s page, where he lists many more examples.
Born in a small town in upstate New York, Brita Addams has made her home in the sultry south for many years. In the Frog Capital of the World, Brita shares her home with her real-life hero—her husband, and a fat cat named Stormee. All their children are grown.
Given her love of history, Brita writes both het and gay historical romance. Many of her historicals have appeared on category bestseller lists at various online retailers.
Musa Publishing publishes Brita’s heterosexual historical romances, including the rewritten and expanded, best-selling Sapphire Club series, each with new titles. Again, each of the titles have again hit the best-selling lists at various online vendors.
Tarnished Gold, the first in her gay romance Tarnished series for Dreamspinner Press, was a winner in the 2013 Rainbow Awards, Historical Romance category. The book also received nominations for Best Historical and Best Book of 2013 from the readers of the Goodreads M/M Romance Group.
A bit of trivia—Brita pronounces her name, Bree-ta, and not Brit-a, like the famous water filter. Brita Addams is a mash-up of her real middle name and her husband’s middle name, with an additional d and s.
Readers can follow Brita Addams at any of the following places: