Saturday, 13 February 2016

opposite v contrast

Since around the turn of the 20th century, people are using opposite less and contrast more.
When I use the terms in my linguistic work, I use contrast for when more than two things are being contrasted, and opposite when there are just two. I doubt this change in general English has anything to do with English speakers becoming less binary, though. The rise of contrast seems to be due to the rise of the phrase in contrast to. (I won't share all the ngrams, but you can look it up.)

But what is the downtrend for opposite about? I tried looking at collocates in the Corpus of Historical American English, and there are lots of different collocates if one compares the mid-19th and late-20th centuries. No clear explainers like a set phrase that's taken off. In the earlier data, there are more that have to do with politics, though: the opposite parties, opposite doctrine, opposite principles. Of course, in the 19th century, Americans fought a war against each other, so they really were opposed. The trends in the graph above, though, are not from American only. Maybe opposite is going down in part due to the rise of in contrast to. It's a possibly softer way to talk about opposed things.

Two other hypotheses that didn't pan out: the demise of opposite does not correlate with a similar increase in across from (that is, its prepositional use doesn't seem to have changed much), and there's barely any shift in the numbers for antonym (it's just a line along the bottom of the chart).


  1. What about "opposite" being replaced by "opposing"?

  2. Opposing has stayed very steady.

  3. You contrast a lot of things that are not opposites. They only need to differ slightly to be contrast-able.

  4. This is true, but it does not explain why there are fewer opposites in the 20th century than in the 19th.