Monday 13 February 2023

More false morphologies

Mo Willems has an opposites book out, Opposites Attract, and the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh has a show about it, which has reminded me that there's an 'antonym blog' folder on my desktop with things I've not been posting here. 

So, for the sake of posting something, here are a couple more takes on a now-familiar kind of cartoon, where a series of letters that looks like a word within a word (but isn't a word within that word) is replaced by an opposite.  I need a name for these, so I can tag them all. Let's call them false-morphologies. Now that I've tagged them, you can find the others here

Wednesday 22 September 2021

semantic - orthographical ancillary antonymy

 The title of this post will only make sense to the nerdiest antonym nerd, but what's neat about this... the mix of a semantic opposition involving a proper noun's common noun sense, and an orthographic (spelling) opposition. Very cute.

Sunday 5 September 2021

"Be kind" versus "don't be mean"

I'm thinking a bit about all of the admonitions to "be kind" these days. I'm very much in favo(u)r of kindness, especially in the guises of patience and helpfulness, but I do understand why some people express suspicion of "kindness" as an admonition.

But now I'm thinking about "be kind" versus "don't be mean" and the power of the negative admonition.

When feeding back on others' writing, I often advise them to lead with positive statements rather than negative ones where possible. (I read so many "This study will not study X, but Y." Lead with the Y, please!)  But in this kind of admonition, I think leading with the negative does more. Google's famous(ly abandoned) "don't be evil" feels like a better check on behavio(u)r than "be/do good", for instance. Being good is a tall order. Not everything you do will be good, and that has to be OK. But it's important that what you do isn't evil. It's the line between not-evil and evil that we don't want to cross. Less important is the line between good and not-good.

Self-improvement gurus often push the positive. For instance, for weight loss, they prescribe mantras like  "eat more vegetables" rather than "don't eat sweets". Such cases are different from the good/evil case, though. "Don't eat sweets" tells you not to do something you want to do. "Don't be evil" tells you to not do something you didn't want to do in the first place. It needs to be said not because you would otherwise set out on an evil pathway, but because it keeps you mindful of the potential for evil. It makes you scan your behavio(u)r for inadvertent or coincidental evil. (This might be an argument against The Law of the Ridiculous Reverse.)

I was thinking about this because I chuckled at a Facebook post that implied that people with certain views are stupid, and I've been trying to ask myself "is this kind?" before I do things on the internet. Would it have been kind of me to share that post? No. 
But then again, most of the posts I share are not kind. I just shared a picture of a chandelier I liked. Not actually kind. If my intention is to only share kind things on Facebook, then maybe I shouldn't have shared it.

The "don't be mean" admonition allows the sharing of the chandelier, but discourages the sharing of the put-down. It gets down to what's important and therefore is a less boring and more direct question to repeatedly ask myself: is this mean (to/about someone)? So much more satisfying than "is this kind?"

Our university has kindness as one of its corporate values. This means that whenever something I don't like is happening at the university, I annoyingly ask the higher-ups: "How is our value of kindness being practi{c/s}ed here?" 

But what if instead of saying "we will be kind to each other" the university community agreed "we won't be mean to each other"? I have to say, I think I'd have a much easier time knowing if people were acting mean than if they were being kind... 

Of course, having indefinable values makes things easier for a corporation, because it's harder to hold them to their values and slogans. This is why Google's "don't be evil" motto was refreshing, and why other corporate entities aren't rushing to imitate it. Their (parent company's) new motto is "Do the right thing"—unhelpfully presupposing that there is exactly one right thing (as opposed to many bad ones?) and thus making it a nearly impossible motto to follow. Which is evil. 
But then it's claimed that the problem with the old slogan was that don't be evil means different things to different people. I don't think that matters that much because one doesn't need to please everyone here. Taking "don't be mean" as my motto means that I should not do things that I consider to be mean. If other people consider other things to be mean, then it would be kind to listen to what they have to say about that. But what "don't be mean" means to me is that I should be running my potential behavio(u)rs past my conscience. There's a reason they call the conscience a "little voice". It's easily drowned out. So I have to listen for it. Don't be mean, Lynne. And maybe sometimes you'll be kind. 
P.S. I've just been reminded of the similar admonition "Don't be a dick". I'm going to stick with "don't be mean" because mean is an adjective and dick is a noun. Nouns are more time-insensitive than adjectives, which means that the barriers to nounhood are higher. To put it as an analogy:
Don't be mean:Don't be a dick::Be kind:Be a saint.
You can be kind without being a saint. Kind is the gateway to sainthood. Similarly, you can be mean without making it to dickhood. So, I could justify some mean behavio(u)r by saying "Well, it's mean, but that doesn't make me a complete dick." My goal is to stay off the path to dickhood entirely, so I'm going to stick with don't be mean.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

longage and coolth

Antonyms are often (if not usually) uneven. Long and short describe different directions in the same dimension, but we can only (unless we're being a little silly) measure things in length: two feet long, not two feet short. Even if two feet is short, the thing has a length, not a shorth. Because of the way measurement works, it's generally the word that describes the upward direction on the scale that is more 'unmarked', which is to say it can be used in more contexts, like measurements. 

One word that I like a lot, because it seems to go against this trend, is coolth. This is convenient for the particular treatment of gradable adjective meaning that was central to my doctoral work—coolth works better than shorth (semantically speaking) because measurement of temperature and measurement of length work a bit differently. Things can usually get colder (yes, there's an absolute zero, but you'll be dead before you experience it), but once they get too short, they cease to exist.

The word coolth has been around since at least the 1540s, but it probably gets re-invented nearly every time it's used, since no one's hearing it much. It's easy enough to see how to make it. Warmth has given us the recipe.

But anyway, I thought of my love for coolth when I read James Harbeck's blog post about the word longage. It's the opposite of shortage. It doesn't seem to have quite the history that coolth has, but then shortage has only been around since the late 19th century. (Thank you, American English.) And I thought: good for you, short. You got to be the word that did something morphologically interesting and then your opposite copied you. You got to have the kind of 'getting out and about' fun that the unmarked adjective usually gets to have. 

Anyhow, have a read of James's blog post about longage.

And now I find out he's got one about coolth too!

Friday 22 May 2020


One of the Twitter accounts I follow is New New York Times, which automatically tweets words that are published in the NYT for the first time in its history. (Very often, they are typos.) Here's one that caught my eye:

Two of the other Twitter accounts I follow respond to these one-word tweets. One is NYTfirstsaid Context, which gives the context for the tweet, in this case:

[imitating Trump] When it comes to being negative, my test was extremely positive, because, not to be negative, but, being positive would be super negative, and I wouldn’t want to not be unnegative. Of that, I’m positive — in a negative way. — STEPHEN COLBERT
In other words, it's a comedian's imitation of Trump's claim that he "tested positively toward the negative" for coronavirus. This is a man whose ego is so fragile (and intellect so limited) that he doesn't want to classify himself as anything negative, even when it's a good thing to be negative.

The last post here was about unalive versus alive and dead, where something unalive isn't necessarily something that's dead because in order to be dead you have to have been alive, whereas in order to be unalive (in the sense used in the cartoon), you presumably don't. You can be in the class of things that are not alive.

But is unnegative anything other than positive? And is the opposition, like dead/alive, restricted to a particular domain? Various things could be positive or negative, but when we shift from one semantic domain to another, things seem to change.

When positive/negative are applied to numbers, there's a middle ground between them: zero.

-5   -4   -3   -2   -1   0   +1   +2    +3  +4   +5

Here unnegative would presumably refer to the numbers {0, 1, 2, 3...}, unlike positive, which refers to {1, 2, 3...}. We could call negative/unnegative a privative relation, where unnegative just means the absence of negativity. It works as a contradictory antonym (if a number is not negative, it's unnegative and vice versa), where positive/negative doesn't quite (because of zero).

I think we'd have to call this type a non-gradable contrary antonym pair. Contraries have a middle ground (can be neither X nor Y), but they are usually properties that exist to greater or lesser extents (gradable). You can be neither tall nor short because you can be an unremarkable height, but even if you're short, you can be taller than someone else. But +3 is not "more positive" than +1. It's more than +1, but not more positive than this. The thing is, the way many people talk about contraries, you'd think they were always gradable, so it's a bit funny to talk about non-gradable contraries. (John Lyons talks about non-gradable contraries with respect to directional opposites. And indeed this seems to be a kind of directional opposite.)

In the context of medical tests, there seem also to be three possibilities (putting aside the possibility of not taking the test): positive, negative, and inconclusive. An inconclusive result for a test could be classed as an unnegative result, so in that case unnegative ≠ positive.

But "inconclusive" is not really a middle ground, and it's not the same as the reality of whether one has the disease, it's "We don't know". In terms of who has a disease or not, positive/negative is complementary: you either have the virus or you don't. It's yes or no with no maybe

The last of the NYT-neologism Twitter feeds I follow is called NYT Bibliography and it documents how many times the new-to-the-NYT word has occurred in Google Books. There was no such tweet-response yet, and so I looked for myself and found...

...nothing. I was really quite surprised. I checked for it with a hyphen (un-negative), just in case and got none that way either.  Congratulations to Stephen Colbert for not only getting the word into the NYT, but for being so original.

Googling the word more generally brings up more hits, many of which are hyphenated. They mostly relate to the semantic domain of emotional states.  There's even an @unnegative Twitter feed, and I found its profile description interesting:
I was kind of hoping that the un- in this un-negative would be the verb prefix, which means 'reversal' rather than 'not'. (When you untie your shoes, you don't not-tie them.) I had hoped this person was going to unnegative the news for us. But they're definitely using it as an adjective, and they have excluded the middle between positive and negative: unnegative news is positive news. No neutral news here. 

Anyhow, that's a smidgen of what goes through my head when a one-word tweet comes into view.

Wednesday 20 May 2020

Alive - Not Alive

Dead/alive is often given as an example of complementary (or contradictory) antonymy. That's when if X is true, Y must be false and vice versa. If Lincoln is dead, then Lincoln is not alive. If Lincoln is alive, then Lincoln is not dead. Complementaries have no middle ground. You either are or you aren't.

But try to use dead/alive as an example in a classroom or a textbook, and someone will say "what about vampires?" For them, we have the category of the undead. Is dead the opposite of undead? Or is alive?  (I'll always answer such questions with 'depends on the context'.)

The supernatural aside, a complementary antonym pair is only complementary in the semantic domains to which they apply. My sofa is not alive, but that doesn't mean it's dead. Something has to have been alive to be dead, so the semantic domain for dead/alive (and even undead) is 'living things'.

Not or the prefix non- put things in contradictory (or complementary) relations to one another regardless of the semantic domain.

What xkcd gives us in this comic is alive/not-alive. But although there's a firm line between the two,  it treats both as gradable states, where prions and viruses are not alive, but rocks are really not alive. The upward scale seems to be based on animacy and perhaps similarity to humans, while the downward scale mixes up criteria a bit more. I'm not entirely sure that I consider a prion to less not-alive than a rock with a face. In terms of things I'm likely to worship, the rock with a face comes higher, and surely I'm more likely to worship the less not-alive?

Anyway, it's funny. Thanks, xkcd.