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The word antonym was coined in the 1860s to serve as the opposite to the word synonym, already in common use to describe a word or phrase with similar meaning as another. Antonym was first used by Archdeacon C.J. Smith in his book, "Synonyms and Antonyms", in which he classified words which formed an antithesis to each other. Antonym is made up of the Greek 'anti', meaning opposite, and 'onoma', meaning name.

The simplest definition of an antonym is a word opposite in meaning to another, such as wet is the antonym of dry. This seems straightforward, but language is very complex, and there are subtle variations in the use of antonyms. Wet and dry appears to be a direct antonym, involving complete opposites. If we look at the word wet more closely, however, there is scale involved; wet can be damp, dripping, soaking or moist, and using these mediated nouns creates indirect, or graded antonyms. The contrast between damp and dry is mediated through the more direct antonym of wet and dry. If we take the word happy, we could picture a scale with happy at one end, moving through cheerful, content, bored and dejected to sad. We could select any of the words in between to make further antonyms for happy and sad, although they would not be so powerful.

Another variation, the complementary antonym, cannot be substituted with any other word; as in dead or alive, true or false, or question and answer. These are absolute opposites; if you are dead, then you cannot be alive. Similar to complementary antonyms are relational antonyms, such as mother and child, or husband and wife, where one only exists in relation to the other.

Some pairs of nouns are mistakenly considered to be opposites, such as cat and dog. If we replace this with cat and horse, or otter and dog, we can see that two different animals cannot be genuine antonyms, and the opposition of cat and dog is merely subjective. Most common nouns have no antonyms, although pairs such as salt and vinegar are often wrongly labelled.

Antonyms are often created by adding various prefixes to an existing word. Commonly used antonym prefixes are 'un' as in unlikely/likely, 'non' as in nonconformist/conformist, and 'in' as in intolerant/tolerant.

Some words have more than one antonym, and these can be usefully employed to indicate exactly which usage of a word is meant. Light can be the antonym of both heavy and dark, and whichever one is used will communicate clearly which meaning of the word light is intended. Antonyms and synonyms are useful tools that help differentiate between shades of meaning and bring precision to language.