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.


  1. This sort of pseudo-double-negative formation is great for doublespeak and equivocation because it allows people to say something without actually getting on the record as having said it. It can be a shortcut for people who don't want to do the research. Someone can get away with saying, for example, that an opinion is "not unpopular" without having to do the research (or actively hiding one's findings) to say that an opinion is popular. The phrase "not uncommon" is, well, not uncommonly used in this way.