Two Words: Inept / Adept

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Is “adept” the opposite of “inept”?

Yes – and no. Both in sound and meaning, these words are near-perfect opposites. Their respective origins and histories, however, indicate they have nothing to do with one another.


First, some history of my own:

Back in the early Seventies, I was a reporter for the Tullahoma News in lower Middle Tennessee. One day, in speaking with the publisher, Morris Simon, I described one of our local politicians as “inept”.

Mr. Simon considered this assessment, then replied: “I don’t think he’s inept at all. I think he’s very – apt.”

Now I don’t remember who we were discussing, or why. What stayed with me was my boss’s long pause, followed by his careful choice of “apt” as the opposite of “inept”.

This struck me, at the time, as correct. It still seems reasonable and plausible. It later occurred to me that “aptitude” is pretty much on the other end of the lexical spectrum from “ineptitude”. That seemed to support Mr. Simon’s usage.

Several years ago I read, however, that “apt” isn’t the opposite of “inept”. But my source didn’t indicate what is its opposite – or even whether it has one.

This started me on a search. I wasn’t willing to consider “ept” as the opposite of anything, or even as a real word.

So it was gratifying when, recently, the obvious thought came to me: “adept”. Clearly adept and inept were antonyms, were they not?

No, sadly, they were not. Etymologists – the people who study word histories – say they evolved independently, from completely different, unrelated root words in different languages.

Yet consider: To be adept is to be skilled and proficient. To be inept is to be unskilled and clumsy. As antonyms, these just work!

One can be adept with tools, with language, with politics, or most anything. One can be inept with all the same things.

The word “adept” also can be used as a noun: An “adept” is someone skilled at a craft. In early times, this particularly implied skill at magic and occult arts, though the meaning has broadened.

Hmm. If there’s such a thing as “an adept”, then you’d think there also could be “an inept”. The latter, however, apparently isn’t a correct or customary usage.

Then the other shoe fell: I learned that “ept” really is a word. And yes, that word – not “adept” – is the true opposite of “inept”.

None of this sits well with me. I’ve thus decided to juxtapose “inept” with “adept” whenever it suits me. (And maybe “apt” sometimes, too, in deference to my former boss.)

After all, as long as I don’t say they are antonyms, there’s nothing to stop me from treating them as such.

Is there?

(This article is part of my series on words that are #worth1000pictures.)


Two Words: Inept / Adept — 6 Comments

  1. Looks like my Spanish skills would leave me to a correct answer. Inepto (inept in spahish) vs. apto (ept). Buth then again, I had no idea that the word “ept” exists :-). Thank you, Gary.

    • @Irina, one thing I’ve learned, since posting the original article, is that “ept” (though considered a real word) is really a humorous coinage derived from “inept”. I believe it was E.B. White who first used it this way — and fairly recently, in historical terms anyway. As I told Dev Samaddar, I need to revisit this post and clarify some of the points I muddled.

  2. Well, after looking up etymological references it seems ept is a rather new word, and formed backwards from inept. So it lacks pedigree, in a manner of speaking.

    OTOH, inept seems to be derived from or at least related to apt.
    Perhaps it is one of those cases where the vowel changes form once combined with a prefix or another word? Happens frequently in Sanskrit based languages.

    Also, adept didn’t seem to be that different really.

    • @Dev, thanks for these links. Looking them over, I see now that I made the matter a bit too cut-and-dried. “Apt” and “adept” really are antonyms of “inept”. There’s an element of truth in what I wrote, but it isn’t the whole truth. I need to revisit and update this.

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