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noun [countable]

a word which looks like it means a particular thing but in fact means something different

'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.'

New York Times 25th September 2009

If we'd read the sentence 'Fred was totally disinterested' I'm guessing that many of us, me included, would surmise that Fred had no particular interest in whatever was being described. In fact, what is more lexically accurate is that Fred had no involvement or self-interest in this thing and so was able to judge it impartially, he was unbiased. Disinterested belongs to a group of words in the English language which don't always mean what we think they mean. Writers and speakers beware – these are the phantonyms.

it is reassuring to see that many current dictionaries … also acknowledge the 'popular' meanings of phantonyms

The new term phantonym fills the gap in our language to describe words which have a slightly or even significantly different meaning to what is popularly perceived, and are therefore often used in a way which, for some people at least, is considered to be incorrect. Here are a few more examples of phantonyms, with the 'real' meaning on the left and the 'popular' meaning on the right:

  • enormity – an extremely evil act | very great size or importance
  • fortuitous – happening by chance | lucky
  • presently – in a short while | now
  • noisome – dirty, smelly and unpleasant | noisy

That said, as a fully paid-up descriptivist, I do have a bit of a problem with the concept of a phantonym, since for me at least, 'English is as English does'. If a substantial number of people are using a word with a particular meaning over a significant number of years, then that meaning should count (it would seem crazy for example to argue that in the 21st century the 'real' meaning of gay is 'happy'!). It's therefore reassuring to see that many current dictionaries of English, both learner and native speaker, whilst being accurate in their primary definitions, do also acknowledge the 'popular' meanings of phantonyms.

So, returning to where we started, how would current dictionaries define a phantonym such as disinterested? Check out the entry in the Macmillan Dictionary, which, I'm happy to point out, tells the whole story.

Background – phantonym

The term phantonym as a descriptor of words which are often thought to mean one thing, but in fact mean another, was coined in 2009 by New York Times columnist Jack Rosenthal (see the article quoted above). This isn't however, the first time the word phantonym has been used. In 2006 it was adopted by British novelist Kit Whitfield, who used it to describe: '… the feeling you get when you're searching for the perfect word: that there is a word for this concept that's not in the thesaurus, but you can't quite remember it … and you're forced to go with a word that's slightly wrong'. Even further back, it was also used by author Irwin M. Berent in the subtitle of a book Getting your Word's Worth, published in 1993. Berent used phantonym as a clever blend of phantom and antonym, in relation to a discussion of antonyms (opposites) which didn't really exist but were made up for fun, such as understand/overstand and belittle/bebig.

In the domain of language teaching and learning, Rosenthal's definition of phantonym is not dissimilar to the concept of a false friend – a word in a language which learners are often tricked into thinking has a particular meaning simply because it looks like a word in their own language.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

For teachers

Would you like to use this BuzzWord article in class? Visit onestopenglish.com for tips and suggestions on how to do just that! This downloadable pdf contains a student worksheet which includes reading activities, vocabulary-building exercises and a focus on blends.

Last week …

Read last week's BuzzWord. Paraskevidekatriaphobia: fear of Friday the thirteenth.

This article was first published on 18th November 2009.

Open Dictionary

Dunning-Kruger effect

the phenomenon by which an incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence

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