The Grammarphobia Blog

Variations on a theme

Q: My grandma has a question about the word “formidable.” She’s read that it has two meanings that are opposite of each other, and she was wondering if that’s correct.

A: “Formidable” has three related meanings: (1) arousing fear or apprehension; (2) inspiring awe, admiration, or wonder (similar to “impressive”); (3) difficult to undertake or overcome, as in “a formidable challenge.”

None of the meanings are really opposites; they’re just variations on a theme.

The source of “formidable,” which has been in English since the early 1500s, is the Latin formidare (to fear or dread).

The words “awe” and “wonder” in the second meaning above were once negative terms, since they meant fear and dread. “Wonderful,” odd as this may seem, once was a negative word, and “awful” still is.

But some words have truly opposing meanings. They’re called “contronyms.” Examples are “cleave,” “sanction,” and “oversight,” which all have opposing meanings.

I’ve written about words like these before on the blog. Here a link to a posting from last year and here’s a link to one from two years ago.

By the way, the pronunciation of “formidable” may be changing in the United States, according to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.).

Traditionally, the first syllable has been stressed, but an increasing number of Americans have begun accenting the second syllable, a common variant pronunciation in British English.

American Heritage lists both pronunciations as standard English, but its Usage Panel overwhelmingly prefers the traditional one.

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