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)


    1. P.S. I have corrected so many things about the formatting of this post. The remaining problems of formatting are just going to stay...

    2. Lynne: When you quote Some Times in America ...

      "...The belief encouraged by the British that the Americans are vulgar and ostentatious by comparison with use is practically the opposite of the truth. They are generally much more tasteful and restrained." (p. 269)

      I'm guessing the word "use" is supposed to be "us", no?

      Also: Morrissey's "the opposite of worldly", as evocative as it is, hardly seems to describe something that's perhaps indescribable. He could just as easily have said they were "deeply provincial" or "clannish and small-minded" or even "dependably uncosmopolitan."

    3. Thanks--have corrected the typo.

      I don't agree that those are synonyms for 'the opposite of worldly', since those are all more pejorative than how I interpreted the phrase. But that's the beauty of 'opposite of' claims--they could be interpreted in as many ways as there are individuals interpreting them.

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    4. Aha, I've realised what Morrissey's one does for me. It has the 'provincial' connotations, yes, but also the opposite of worldly is innocent. The combination of those is poignant, I think.