Saturday, 5 December 2015

The Law of the Ridiculous Reverse, in practice

I've written about Simon Hoggart's Law of the Ridiculous Reverse, whereby political statements can be judged as meaningless if their opposites are absurd. Mark Steel in the Independent has put this into practice in an opinion piece on the recent parliamentary debate about whether Britain should bomb Syria. Here are a few choice bits (emphasis added):

Then there were the Labour MPs supporting the bombing, who all assured us: “I have given this matter a great deal of thought and not taken this decision lightly.” This was highly considerate of them. Not one of them said: “I’ve given this no thought as I couldn’t give a monkey’s wank. So I made my decision by putting two slugs on a beermat and the one on the left reached the end first, so I’m with Corbyn.”

Then came the speech by Hilary Benn, which was so powerful that it persuaded MPs such as Stella Creasy to vote with Cameron. She said afterwards: “Benn persuaded me fascism should be defeated.” 
Presumably then, until his speech, she thought fascism was worth a try. When she makes a full statement, it will say: “I always thought I might try fascism as a hobby when I retire, but Hilary explained the negative aspects very well so, on balance, I decided it’s best to defeat it.”
Dozens of MPs were keen to remind us how much Isis hates us, which would be a reasonable point, if people opposed to bombing were saying: “Oh, I don’t think they mind us all that much. We’ve just got off on the wrong foot. Maybe if we invite them to a barbecue we’ll find out we’ve got more in common that we realise.”

Friday, 4 December 2015

Friday, 6 November 2015


This was just in my Twitter feed, which I enjoyed. And it made me think about (a) start/finish versus begin/end and (b) the problems we had when coding the Swedish equivalents for a study we did.

On the (a) point, I tend to think of start/finish and begin/end as the conventionalized pairings of antonyms, reflecting subtle differences in the meanings of the alleged synonyms, but that doesn't mean that you don't see start/end--but begin/finish? In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, looking for the different verbs (in their different forms) conjoined with and you get:

begin and end: 526
start and finish: 66
start and end: 131
begin and finish: 2
In the corpus overall the verb start is about twice as frequent as begin, while end is about 3x as frequent as finish (counting base verb forms only).  

The pattern here reminds me of big/little and large/small, where big can go with either opposite, but large rarely gets paired with little. And you can come up with semantic reasons why that is true. In fact, many people have...including Vicky Muehleisen and me

On (b): Swedish similarly has a couple of frequent pairs in this semantic field, but they are morphologically related: börja and sluta and påbörja and avsluta. (Some discussion here of the difference between sluta and avsluta.) We found that they got all mixed up in terms of which are paired, so we just counted them all together because of the morphological connection. Maybe we shouldn't have--we certainly wouldn't have if they'd been completely different words like begin/end/start/finish.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed Henry Hitchings' tweet!

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

mental illness as contradiction

Because I keep newspapers around the house until I've read them,  I've just read a Guardian article from May about a young woman who wrote a memoir about her experience with anorexia. In an excerpt quoted in the article, the antonyms come thick and fast as she describes how she feels in the midst of her illness [my emphasis]:
I am too big and too small and too much and not enough and too frightened to change and too sad to stay the same. I am an addict and a slave to the beauty myth and I diet and regress and reject and control and cry for help and I still can’t stop the ring-ring-ringing in my ears telling me that something bad is coming, something bad is coming RIGHT NOW. I want to shine and I want to be invisible and I want to be myself and I want to be anyone else in the world and in the end I think the only solution is to get smaller and smaller and smaller and then one day to disappear.
I find this an evocative description. I can identify with any of the feelings there--but I typically have them one at a time, not noisily at once. The repetition of parallel structures gives the paragraph a sense of speed, so that the contradictions feel like they're climbing on top of each other. The combination of the familiar feelings and the jackhammer delivery seems to carry me into an empathetic position. I do think this is one of the most effective descriptions of a mental illness that I've ever read.

The book is: The time in between: a memoir of hunger and hope by Nancy Tucker (Icon Books, 2015).

Friday, 30 October 2015

you're not wrong

One of the things I love about antonyms is how logically unnecessary they (theoretically) are. Antonyms are one of the first thing to go when people try to construct more 'logical' languages. For example, in Esperanto antonyms are mostly made by prefixing mal- (sana = 'healthy', malsana = 'sick') and un- in Ogden's Basic English ('sick' = unhealthy).  But in English, if we want an opposite for healthy, we've got a choice between:
syntactic negation: not healthy
morphological negation: unhealthy
lexical antonyms: sick, ill
 (And other things like in poor health.)

This is the beauty of natural language. It gives us choices, and, by choosing one of the options over the other, we implicitly communicate that the other options were less appropriate for what we wanted to communicate.  As discussed in the last post, when Alexander Chancellor calls a stereotype the opposite of the truth, it communicates something subtly different from a falsehood--possibly something about the culpability of those perpetuating the stereotype, possibly something else, leaving it up to the interpreter to enrich the meaning.

Anyhow, all this is what I was thinking about when I went to purchase a wrapped slice of ginger loaf at the cafe this morning and the following dialogue occurred:

Me: These are smaller than they used to be. 
Server:  You're not wrong.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

the opposite of... Part 1

I've started to collect examples of people using the opposite of X to describe something that is perhaps indescribable. Lexical gaps or even perhaps conceptual gaps.  I know I could go and do big internet searches to find additional examples of these, but at the moment I'm enjoying serendipitous encounters with them.  These are things I put in my notebook a while ago. They speak volumes about my personal taste:
    • The Opposite of Us is a fictional tv show that's pitched in the tv show Episodes. The gimmick of the show is that it's about two different families, played by one set of actors. 
    • ‘Whatever the opposite of an erection is, I just got one’ (Episodes, series 4, ep. 5). The writers of Episodes seem to like this idiom.  

  • The Opposite of Sex is a nice little film by Don Roos, starring someone I have a real soft spot for, Martin Donovan, and other lovely people. Is love the opposite of sex?
  • Morrissey, in his Autobiography (p. 4), about Manchester in the 1960s: “the locals are the opposite of worldly
  • Amy Tan's writing memoir is titled The Opposite of Fate. I've not read it, but the Literary Encyclopedia quotes her to indicate that the opposite of fate is “choice, chance, luck, faith, forgiveness, forgetting, freedom of expression, the pursuit of happiness, the balm of love, a sturdy attitude, a strong will, a bevy of good-luck charms, adherence to rituals, appeasement through prayer, trolling for miracles, a plea to others to throw a lifeline, … the generous provision of that by strangers and loved ones”, and, above all, “hope” (p. 3). 

  • And I love this one by Alexander Chancellor in his Some Times in America:
    • "...The belief encouraged by the British that the Americans are vulgar and ostentatious by comparison with us is practically the opposite of the truth. They are generally much more tasteful and restrained." (p. 269)
      The beauty of this one is that a clear lexical opposite is available: the belief is practically false. But there's just that certain something that's communicated by not phrasing it in the more direct way. 
    The the-opposite-of phenomenon is not unrelated to what I just did there: using the phrasal and morphological negation of an adjective in order to not quite commit to the adjective: not unrelated communicates something like 'somewhat related'.  But rather than having a softening, less committal connotation, for me the opposite of the truth (or even the opposite of true) is worse than false--in large part because it's made what could have been a wishy-washy adjective into a definite noun phrase. The opposite.

    And that's the thing about opposites: no matter how many potential opposites an expression might have, in any particular context, it is allowed only one opposite. You can look for a synonym of a word, but it's the opposite. None of the above opposite claims would be so effective if they were about an opposite of sex/fate/worldly/erection/the truth. That would be uninformative. Presupposing that there is a single not-quite-nameable opposite for these things gives the prose a certain connotative force. It is at risk of being overused, but I love it.

    I will add more of these to the blog as serendipity brings them to me.  

    Update, later that evening:  of course the next thing that happens after finishing this post is that I read this:
    In the realm of physics, the opposite of matter is not nothingness, but antimatter. In the realm of practical epistemology, the opposite of knowledge is not ignorance but anti-knowledge. This seldom recognized fact is one of the prime forces behind the decay of political and civic culture in America.  (The GOP and the Rise of Anti-Knowledge by Mike Lofgren)

    Wednesday, 28 October 2015

    The Law of the Ridiculous Reverse

    Simon Hoggart
    British journalist Simon Hoggart is credited with coining 'The Law of the Ridiculous Reverse', sometimes now referred to as 'Hoggart's Law', which holds that "if the opposite of a statement is plainly absurd, it was not worth making in the first place". He used it to illustrate the meaninglessness of politicians' claims. To quote his examples:

    "An economy where people who work hard are properly rewarded", or in the least gracious alternative, "an economy crafted to benefit lazy skivers who would rather watch Jeremy Kyle than turn an honest hand".
    "Reduce the burden of excessive regulation" or "tie up business with yet more red tape".
    "A fairer society that rewards people who work hard" or alternatively "an unjust society that rewards bent bankers and speculators". Oh, hold on, that's what we've got. So perhaps there really is a policy change there.

    Since no one is arguing for the second alternative, is the first one, the quotation from a politician, really adding anything to the discussion? No, not really.

    So, try it with the latest speech of the US election season. (Results in the comments section, if you please.) Since there have been so many ridiculous claims made by some candidates, it might be interesting to see if they made sense when reversed.

    Tuesday, 27 October 2015

    antonyms in sound symbolism study

    I was interested in the use of antonyms in a study exploring sound symbolism. To quote a Quartz article about it:
    Kaitlyn Bankieris, a cognitive scientist from the University of Rochester, and Julia Simner, a psychologist and leader in the field of synesthesia, showed participants 400 adjectives from 10 languages they didn’t speak: Albanian, Dutch, Gujarati, Indonesian, Korean, Mandarin, Romanian, Tamil, Turkish, and Yoruba. The words were broken up into categories by meaning: big/small, bright/dark, up/down, or loud/quiet. Participants heard the words spoken aloud and guessed their meanings.
    Synaesthetes were better at the task than others, but overall both syntaesthetic and non-synaesthetic could guess the words at a better-than-chance rate, presumably because the words with 'small' meanings restrict the vocal space more and the ones with 'large' meanings open the vocal tract more--this is known as sound symbolism. Another article about the article can be found at Scientific American.

    One assumes that if they asked people if the word meant 'small' or 'bright', they'd be back to chance. It's being on one or the other side of a scale that leads people to the right answer.

    Monday, 26 October 2015

    a party game

    The aforementioned Opposites Party was attended by people from lots of different parts of my life who wouldn't have known each other (or in a couple of cases who wouldn't have known anyone but me), so I wanted an ice-breaker to get people to chat with each other. And what are antonyms for, if not to bring people together? (They've brought me together with several co-authors over the years, after all.)

    The key to the opposites game is that antonyms are more alike than different. If antonyms were really different, then frisbee could be the opposite of exorcism or some such thing. But no. Hot is the opposite of cold because they're both very alike: they are both basic bits of vocabulary describing extremes of temperature.

    So, in the opposites game, everyone is assigned a label with one half of an opposite pair, which they wear. They then have to find their opposite at the party. When they've found each other, they have to chat until they find something non-obvious that they have in common. (I put in the 'non-obvious' bit because I wanted them to have a conversation that got past such facts as  'We're both at the same party' or 'We both know Lynne'.)

    Once they'd done that, they were asked to put their labels in my guest book, add their names to them and write down the thing they have in common. Here's a bit of the result, i.e. my keepsake from the party.

    (The Birthday Boy badge was an opposite gift from my opposite: the other Lynne the linguist at Sussex. You know we're opposites because we have more in common than we have different.)

    The opposites I chose for the labels were varied in their obviousness versus obscurity. The cruelest was probably cryptic-quick (which will only be clear to readers of certain newspapers who are familiar with their crossword puzzles).

    I recommend the game, and I think most of the people at my party would too.

    Sunday, 25 October 2015

    Opposites playlist+

    The party invitation
    Part of the reason for starting this blog is that I've promised many people that I'd share the playlist from my recent birthday party, where the theme was (can you guess?) Opposites. This was the second opposites-themed party I've had. The first was nearly 25 years ago when I passed my preliminary examination for my doctorate--which was also opposite-themed. The compilation tapes from that party were lost sometime after I stopped owning a cassette player. The first time round, I was more of a purist: only songs with the opposites in the title were counted. This time, I was more interested in having more recognizable and (later in the evening) danceable songs, so I allowed songs by artists with opposite-containing names or songs in which opposites were a big part of the chorus (though not in the title). There are also some pairs that make an opposite if they're played one after the other.

    So here, for what passes on the internet for posterity, is this year's playlist.  (Many thanks to many FB friends for suggestions and to Phil for downloading/uploading all the songs.)  I've copied this table from an MS-Word file and some formatting has gone wonky. But I am determined that this blog is not going to be TOO much of a timesuck, so we'll live with it.

    What we actually played:

    song [further explanation]
      Opposites Day 
      Lloyd Cole
    Hello, Goodbye
    The Beatles
    Let's Call The Whole Thing Off
    [tomayto-tomahto, etc.]
    Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong
    The Lady Is a Tramp
    Tony Bennett & Lady Gaga
    Night And Day
    Black Night White Light
    Frankie Goes To Hollywood
    All Or Nothing
    The Small Faces
    Walk, Don't Run
    A Hard Day's Night
    The Beatles
    Sheep Go to Heaven (Goats Go to Hell)
    Sound And Vision
    David Bowie
    Love And Anger
    [this was cheating a bit, but I like it]
    Kate Bush
    Knowing Me, Knowing You
    You're the First, the Last, My Everything
    Barry White
    Female of the Species
    [is more deadly than the male]
    Video Killed the Radio Star
    The Buggles
    Istanbul not Constantinople
    They Might be Giants
    Step It Up ['to the left, to the right...']
    Stereo MC's
    Save it For Later [‘Sooner or later...’]
    The [English] Beat
    Cruel To Be Kind
    Nick Lowe
    Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song)
    Otis Redding
    Pharrell Williams
    Head Over Heels
    The Go-Go's
    Heaven Is a Place On Earth
    Belinda Carlisle
    Opposites Attract
    Paula Abdul
    I Started Something I Couldn't Finish
    The Smiths
    Slap And Tickle
    Right And Wrong
    Joe Jackson
    Should I Stay or Should I Go
    The Clash
    You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)
    Dead or Alive
    Hey Boy Hey Girl
    The Chemical Brothers
    Rise [‘I could be right I could be wrong…’]
    Public Image Ltd.
    Girls & Boys
    Push It
    West End Girls [‘East End Boys and…’]
    Pet Shop Boys
    Praise You
    Fatboy Slim
    River Deep Mountain High
    Ike & Tina Turner
    Live and Let Die
    Paul McCartney
    Good Lovin'
    The Rascals
    Bad Romance
    Lady Gaga
    The Cure
    This Is Not A Love Song
    Public Image Ltd.
    Master and Servant
    Depeche Mode
    Love to Hate You
    Upside Down
    Diana Ross
    Black Or White
    Michael Jackson
    Penthouse and Pavement
    Heaven 17
    Bitter Sweet Symphony
    The Verve
    Short Skirt/Long Jacket
    Somebody Told Me [that you had a boyfriend, who looked like a girlfriend…]
    The Killers
    One Way or Another
       [I get knocked down

        but I get up again]
    As Above So Below
    Tom Tom Club
    Earth, Wind & Fire
    Don't Stop the Music 
       [samples Michael Jackson’s Wanna
        Be Startin’ Something’]
    Hot 'n Cold
    Basement Jaxx
    Birds Fly (Whisper to a Scream)
    The Icicle Works
    Stand Or Fall
    The Fixx
    Hot N Cold
    Katy Perry
    Big When I Was Little
    Eliza Doolittle
    All Day And All Of The Night
    The Kinks
    The Sun and the Rain
    With or Without You
    Say Hello, Wave Goodbye
    Soft Cell

    But there were lots more that came to mind or were suggested that we didn't like well enough to put on the playlist (often because we felt we had too many 'slow' songs).  And then there were a few that I had put on the list that I just discovered aren't here because apparently Phil vetoed them. I am shocked and hurt, I am. Ok, it's more than a few:

    Forever Live and DieOrchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark
    Move your feetJunior Senior
    Friend or FoeAdam Ant
    Take It or Leave ItThe Strokes
    Up for the Down StrokeParliament
    Needles and PinsVentures (or Ramones)
    Licht und Blindheit [Atmosphere] Joy Division
    Gotta get up to get downMarmalade
    The night we called it a dayFrank Sinatra
    Up and Down The Mr T Experience (orig. Sesame Street)
    Girl from Ipanema goes to GreenlandThe B52s
    Now and ThenThe Proclaimers
    Boys & GirlsPixie Lott
    Man Smart, Woman SmarterHarry Belafonte
    Forever NowPsychedelic Furs
    Flesh & BloodRoxy Music
    Both Ends BurningRoxy Music
    Love & HateMarcus Collins
    Stuck in the Middle with You ['clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right']Stealers Wheel
    Karma Chameleon ['you come & go']Culture Club
    Say you, Say meLionel Ritchie
    Black and White UniteBelle & Sebastian
    Woman make manM
    Not a sinner nor a saintAlcatraz
    Hunting high and lowA-ha
    Up and DownVengaboys
    Now and ThenSuzanna Hoffs
    Body and SoulTony Bennett & Amy Winehouse
    Black and WhiteThree Dog Night
    Sugar and SpiceThe Searchers

    Leather and Lace
    Don Henley & Stevie Nicks
    Ain't no mountain high enough [ain't no valley low enough]Diana Ross
    Yes or NoThe Gogo's
    Spirits in the Material WorldThe Police
    First and Last and AlwaysSisters of Mercy
    Don't it make my brown eyes blueCrystal Gayle
    Alone togetherThe Strokes
    Colourless ColourLa Roux
    Bicycle Race ['you say black, I say white...]
    Back and ForthAaliyah
    Ebony and IvoryPaul McCartney & Stevie Wonder
    Wanted Dead or AliveBon Jovi
    Same old brand new youA1
    Pushing forward backTemple of the Dog
    Man I feel like a womanShania Twain
    The winner losesBodycount
    The Hokey Cokey (or Hokey Pokey)[right/left]
    Downside UpPeter Gabriel
    Geisha Boys and Temple GirlsHeaven 17
    Back and ForthCameo
    The Hunter gets captured by the GameThe Marvelettes
    Good times, bad timesLed Zeppelin
    Both sides nowJoni Mitchell
    Hate this and I'll love youMuse
    White boy, black girlINXS
    You and me songWannadies
    Let's stay together [good/bad, happy/sad]Al Green
    Rise and fallCraig David
    Head to ToeLisa Lisa & Cult Jam
    The Fire and the FloodVance Joy
    True/False Fake/RealHercules and Love Affair

    I can't include links to all of them, but I do love this:

    Which is a cover of this:

    You might be able to guess what age I turned from this selection. If your fave opposite song(s) is/are missing, please add them in the comments--they might make the list for the next party!

    introduction and conclusion

    Evidence of the Day Job #1
    For the past 25(ish) years, by day I've been a lexicologist (linguist who studies how vocabulary works) who does research about relations between words, especially my pet relation, antonymy (oppositeness).  For the past 10 years, by night I've been a blogger on British-American English differences. However, the British-American thing has now become a big part of my day job, displacing the antonym work to some degree. (Some would say it's about time.) So, to balance out things, I must become a blogger-by-night about antonym relations, right?

    Evidence of the Day Job #2

    I will always love antonyms, and the questions they raise about human thought processes, no matter what else I'm working on. So this blog exists to be a kind of filing system for things I collect about antonyms. Much neater and more searchable, I hope, than the many folders in many places (virtual and physical) where I keep cartoons and interesting quotations and weird facts about antonyms just in case I ever need them.

    This blog won't be like the Separated by a Common Language blog, where I research topics (often on request) and try to do a bit of educating. It's just going to be a place to collect amusing (to me) things that may by chance amuse someone else...

    Evidence of the Day Job #3