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).