Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Unexpected Opposites

I occasionally teach a class about using Microsoft Word. In one of the class exercises, students are asked to format a page, and the instructions tell them to "outdent" a heading. After I got several questions about that each class, I realized that lots of people have no idea what the term means.

Outdent is the opposite of indent. Once you know that, it's easy to see how the in- of indent can become out- when you want to do the opposite of indenting — that is, when you want to move text toward the edge of the document rather than away from it. Some poking around makes it clear that it's an unusual term (it doesn't show up in many dictionaries), and is used only in technical discussions about formatting text.

I was on the other end of this situation when I began taking guitar classes a few years ago. As we worked on different songs, the teacher occasionally referred to the outro, a term I'd never heard, but which other students seemed unfazed by. It was a surprisingly long time before I grasped that the outro was the opposite of the intro — namely, it's the closing portion of the song. Unlike outdent, outro has been around at least 50 years and has entries in many dictionaries.

Outdent and outro are examples of what I think of as "unexpected opposites" — they're opposites for words that you didn't know even have an opposite. Who would have guessed, for example, that we have a word that's the opposite of intro?

I've found some other examples of these unexpected opposites. For example, when I watched the movie Argo, about the audacious plan to rescue some Americans caught up in the Iranian Revolution of 1979, I learned the term exfil, which is short for exfiltrate. Based on context, I pieced together that exfiltrate is the opposite of infiltrate — to exfiltrate someone is to remove them from a dangerous situation, "usu. surreptitiously," as the OED puts it. I have since run across the term in spy novels, although it does seem to date only from about 1980.

Everyone probably knows that someone or something on a blacklist is banned or excluded or otherwise unwelcome. Perhaps you don't know that the opposite of blacklist is whitelist, which is an explicit list of approved items. I see these terms a lot in the context of computer security — for example, if you've ever marked email from someone as "not junk" or "not spam," you've whitelisted that sender.

A pretty recent example of an unexpected opposite is the term to unfriend. This is the antonym of a verb that's itself pretty recent — to friend, as used on Facebook. (Unfriend was New Oxford American Dictionary's Word of the Year for 2009, as reported by Ben Zimmer.)

In my reading in computer literature, I've found other unexpected opposites. Think for a moment about what the opposite might be of to duplicate. One possible opposite is deduplicate, meaning to remove duplicate information. When I used to manage mailing lists for my kids' school, I spent a lot of time deduplicating those lists.

Along those lines, what would you expect the term denormalize to mean? Admittedly, this is a specialized term. In a database, to normalize is to design the database so that it doesn't contain redundant data — for example, in a normalized database, you store a customer's address just once, and you don't re-enter the address each time you enter an order for that customer. It turns out that under some circumstances (typically when a process needs to be fast), it can make sense to undo this design principle and to go ahead and keep redundant copies of the data — that is, to denormalize the data.

Here's another: what's the opposite of stateless? Again, this is something I see in the computer world. A familiar example is a Google search. When you send a search request to Google, Google does its thing, sends you a page of results, and then forgets all about you — that is, it keeps no state about you. The state information about your search, like what term you're searching for and what page you're on, is actually in the stuff at the end of the URL in the browser. So Google searches are stateless. But other processes do store state, like a word processor that remembers what document you edited last. What's a term for the opposite of stateless? Believe it or not, in my world, we use the term stateful.

Another unexpected opposite comes from the realm of free software. Most software is distributed under copyright, which puts restrictions on how it can be used and distributed. But people in the free-software communities wanted the opposite: a license that not only provides free access to software, but makes sure no one can later put restrictions on it. The term that emerged was a kind of opposite of copyright: copyleft.  

I'm sure that I know other examples of these unexpected opposites, but they only seem unexpected when you first encounter them, so I've probably gotten used to them. So I'll ask readers: what are some other examples that you've encountered of unexpected opposites?

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Mike Pope has been a technical writer and editor for nearly 30 years. He has worked at Microsoft and Amazon, and currently works at Tableau Software. You can read more at Mike's Web Log and Evolving English II. Click here to read more articles by Mike Pope.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday December 10th 2014, 7:19 AM
Comment by: Chelena (South Africa)
My favourite is uncheered:  'Nobody can be uncheered with a balloon.' ― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh.
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 7:25 AM
Comment by: Mateusz H.
A nice example for me is : zenith/nadir.
Zenith is fairly known to many but nadir is a word that is rarely used.
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Erna S. (Atlanta, GA)
In the South, the traditional beverage for lunch is "Sweet Tea" which is iced tea pre-sweetened with sugar. But some of us, like our iced tea, "Unsweet" and order it that way.
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 10:00 AM
Comment by: Erna S. (Atlanta, GA)
oops, pardon my stray commas,
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 10:52 AM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
There are a couple of unpaired terms in the transportation industry that I always wince at: both the airline industry and the rail industry have 'boarding' but they use 'de-plane' and 'de-train,' respectively, to refer to getting off.
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 11:06 AM
Comment by: Dougl W.
Mike: My comment is totally off-target from the point of your informative article, and I'm a bit reluctant to submit it, but...I will. I'm wondering if you're aware of the socio/psychological ramifications of the otherwise conventional language in one of the examples you used:

"Everyone probably knows that someone or something on a blacklist is banned or excluded or otherwise unwelcome. Perhaps you don't know that the opposite of blacklist is whitelist, which is an explicit list of approved items. I see these terms a lot in the context of computer security — for example, if you've ever marked email from someone as "not junk" or "not spam," you've whitelisted that sender." (And please know
I am not, for a second, suggesting that YOU are at all insensitive, but rather our conventional usage - specifically regarding vocabulary - is insensitive).

The words "blacklist" meaning banned and excluded or otherwise unwelcome, and "whitelist" meaning a specific list of approved items are revealing it seems to me. I'm sure we've all heard that the devices of racism are often subtle, sometimes almost undetectable. I believe the above passage is a solid example of that contention. Of course I expect that those who have become fixed in the belief that this is all nonsense will dismiss my interpretation of how this passage affords us an opportunity of how otherwise conventional vocabulary can unmistakenly reflect racism in our society, as being likewise nonsensical. So be it.

I would like to post a shorter variation of my thoughts regarding this vocabulary and racism to my Facebook and Twitter accounts using the above passage as my example. Would you want me to cite you and this article in my post, or would you prefer I simply identify the example of blacklist/whitelist as a matter of common knowledge without mentioning either you or this article at all?

I apologize again for coming here with a sub-topic so far off your main one. But your article was thought provoking albeit in a way you might not have anticipated.

Thank you,

Doug Wild

PS. I didn't spend much time on proof-reading my comments so I hope they are reasonably understandable.
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 12:57 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi, Dougl W. Thanks for your comment. It's interesting that you mention the socio-cultural associations of "blacklist"/"whitelist". I almost added a note about that to the paragraph, but decided not to both for space and because the piece is more about terms as people use them.

You're welcome to cite the excerpt in your blog post. However, before you do, I'd like you to read a blog entry I wrote about this entry some years ago:

"A black and white issue?"

... including the comments. The idea that terms like "blacklist" and "whitelist" have unfortunate conntations is well known, and when I was at Microsoft, there was an absolute editorial ban on these terms, for reasons that you mention.

It's certainly an interesting question. Interestingly, I'm not aware of a similar debate that I know of about terms like "blackhat"/"whitehat", also used in security.


Wednesday December 10th 2014, 1:22 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
@catwalker -- I've occasionally thought about writing an entire piece about the slightly off-kilter lexicon of the airline industry. Not just the excellent examples you have (deplane, deboard), but the peculiar insistence on certain phrases in Airline English, like "at this time" in place of "now" ("Please return your seat back to its original position at this time"). That would be a fun piece to write (and hey, to research.)
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 4:25 PM
Comment by: Craig J.
I believe that concern about the possibility of subtle racism in the use of terms like "blacklist/whitelist", or "...a dark day in U.S. history..." is over-sensitivity. If the hue of ones skin is objectively meaningless with regard to individual character, intellectual capability and moral fitness (which it is), then the best thing to do about distinctions of skin color is ignore them as best we can...unless, of course, your concern is photosensitivity. Anything else just feeds racism.
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 9:31 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
Wednesday December 10th 2014, 9:48 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Many years ago, my friend was describing the damage to a car; there were scratches and scrapes, indentations and ... outdentations, of course, what else would you call them? Spell check doesn't like that word; I guess it never caught on.

Instrumental prelude music is often played in churches, to let people know that it's almost time for the meeting to start, and to set a pleasant mood or atmosphere. Postlude music is a less common term; it means just what you would think!

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday December 11th 2014, 1:43 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
@Kristinw F --

You remind of another opposite that was unexpected to me, although it is of course well known in liturgical and other circles--the opposite of a procession is a recession (processional/recessional). Makes perfect sense, but it was pretty late in life that I learned that "procession" has an opposite. And I _think_ I've run across a postlude, but even if I have, I certainly didn't remember it for this piece.

@ Ellen M -- that's awesome!
Thursday December 11th 2014, 1:51 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
@Erna -- heh. the logic is irrefutable. :-)
Thursday December 11th 2014, 12:31 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Hmmm, I guess logic based on noises made by a ghost in the Great Lakes region might be earrefutable, eeriefutable and Eriefutable ...

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday December 11th 2014, 1:39 PM
Comment by: Dougl W.

Thanks so much for getting back to me. I appreciate your feedback and I especially liked your earlier blog along with their responses. I so enjoy having a rational discussion with bright, caring people regarding often awkward issues, like the above; but I feel I must apologize again for intruding into the wonderfully carefree tone - and topic - of your blog. I absolutely loved it. And I loved the responses you received - all but one that is. But I promise not to "take the bait" of that one respondent and pursue the debate here (In fact, I hope I haven't done so just by saying what I did).

I also apologise for all of the sloppy paragraph outdenting in my response. "Outdent" just may be my new foavorite word.


Saturday December 13th 2014, 4:44 PM
Comment by: Atul J. (India)
Deinstall is one such word. I was only aware that opposite of 'install' is 'uninstall' but later when heard this word, was confused as to whether this was even a correct term.
Thursday December 18th 2014, 7:40 AM
Comment by: Martha
Sweet milk was the opposite of buttermilk in the Kentucky and Georgia when I was growing up. In 1950 on our return to New York from a family journey to Europe on a stratocruiser, no less, my mother confounded a French waiter in a Waldorf Astoria restaurant by ordering sweet milk. He wrote down the order and looking puzzled retreated to the kitchen only to return a few minutes later to ask, "Madame, do you wish me to put the sugar in the milk in the kitchen or bring it to the table for your attention?" I giggled, in spite of myself!

Thanks you,

Friday December 19th 2014, 12:03 AM
Comment by: Connor D.
the opposite of sweetened is unsweetened, not unsweet!
Tuesday December 23rd 2014, 3:24 AM
Comment by: mayur H.
you are pardoned

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