The Grammarphobia Blog

Why apposite isn’t opposite

Q: I have to stop and think every time I come to the word “apposite.” It looks something like “opposite,” but it means pretty much the opposite. I’ll bet there’s an interesting etymology here.

A: You betcha. “Apposite” and “opposite” look alike because they’re related. The two adjectives have a common ancestor, ponere, classical Latin meaning to put or place, according to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.

Adding the prefix ad- (toward) to ponere gave Latin apponere (to place near) and the past participle appositus (near or appropriate), which ultimately gave us “apposite.”

Adding the prefix ob- (against) to ponere gave Latin opponere (to place against) and the past participle oppositus (against or opposite), source of our word “opposite.”

In the late 1300s, the word “opposite” showed up in English as both a noun and an adjective.

As a noun, it meant the opposite side or region; as an adjective, it referred to being on the opposite or farther end of a line. Both senses reflected the meaning of the Latin past participle oppositus.

The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the noun is from “The Knight’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (circa 1386):

“Estward ther stood a gate of marbul whit, / Westward right swich another in the opposit” (“Eastward there stood a gate of white marble, / Westward another just the same in the opposite”).

The dictionary’s first example of the adjective is from The Equatorie of the Planetis (circa 1392), an anonymous Middle English treatise describing the construction and use of an instrument for calculating the position of the planets:

“Procede in the same litel cercle to ward lettere E opposit to D.” (Some scholars believe the treatise may have been written by Chaucer, based on the handwriting, style, and dialect of the manuscript.)

When “apposite” appeared in English in the early 1600s, Oxford says, it meant “well put or applied; appropriate, suitable (to),” similar to the sense of the Latin past participle appositus.

The earliest OED example is from The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton’s wide-ranging treatise on a malady widespread in Jacobean England:

“A most apposite remedy.” (The remedy here is moderate sexual activity, as opposed to “Immoderate Venus,” which is said to cause the blues.)

Today, “apposite” means pertinent, relevant, or appropriate—that is, apt. And “opposite” as a noun refers to someone or something totally different from someone or something else, while as an adjective it means facing, on the other side of, or of an entirely different kind.

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