“I’m not being pigheaded; I’m being steadfast.”
The Greeks, primarily through Aristotle’s rhetoric, bequeathed to us an overwhelming collection of terms for rhetorical devices and word relations. My favorite rhetorical device is the chiasmus, a reversal in the order of words in two otherwise parallel phrases:
Never let a fool kiss you or a kiss fool you.
I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.
Until I wrote this essay, my favorite word-relations term had been contranym, which refers to a word or phrase that can also mean the opposite of its traditional definition. Oversight, for example, means both watchful control, and neglect. “To dust” means to remove dust or apply it, depending on whether you’re cleaning house or looking for fingerprints.
Mind Readers Dictionary : Play in Popup
Mind Readers Dictionary: The Podfast : Play in Popup
These days, the most common contranyms are incredible and unbelievable, which have come to mean both “amazingly true” and “completely false,” which is amazing when you think about it. A word that started out meaning “false” has come to mean “true” — and not by some self-conscious reversal as with the black-turned-mainstream slang term bad or the skateboarder’s exclamation sick, but through natural drift. Why would people bastardize our words like this? Who comes up with this stuff?
People like us, trying to make sense of the world. We use incredible and unbelievable ambiguously because amazement is really about a relationship between something awe-striking and someone awestruck, and it’s not always easy to tell how much of the amazement is intrinsic to the thing that amazes and how much is in the eye of the awestruck beholder. We’ve thus gravitated toward a blurred way to describe an amazing experience. When we say that something was totally, incredibly unbelievable, we’re saying, “Either my expectations weren’t prepared for something this amazing and real, or it was a figment of my imagination, but, whatever it was, I was surprised.” These contranyms enable us to have it both ways.
Indeed, many of our most important words provide us with this power of ambiguity. Take love, a word that in everyday use can mean “what I feel for the person for whom I would lay down my life” but can also refer to a mild or feign appreciation I feel about my car, my new shoes, or, as in, “I’d love to,” a chance to take in a movie tonight.
This flexibility means that when someone asks you whether you love them, you can answer, “Of course I do,” and have, within common usage, considerable leeway.
This fluidity also enables us to declare love as a way to prime the pump of love, a way of saying, “I’d hope to love you, and I predict that I could if you loved me, so would you please?” The meaning of love expands and contracts, not just to describe our feelings but also to prescribe feelings. We throw the word around like a grappling hook to pull ourselves and others into a position we or they should aspire to: “You should love me. After all, I love you.” Even in its trivial uses, it can serve such strategic purposes. We might say, “Well, sure, I guess, we would love to join you on Thursday night,” meaning, “We’re not that enthusiastic, but maybe we can kick-start a little enthusiasm by declaring our enthusiasm first.”
We act as though we want our language precise, but, because flexibility is something we precisely need in order to deal with our uncertain world, we have created a language sufficiently vague to fit that need precisely.
Chiasmus, too, fits our needs when living in this world. The term comes from the letter chi, the Greek equivalent of our X. An X represents two things in reverse relationships with each other: A-B and B-A. That relationship is kind of cosmic and is also represented in the Taoist concept of yin and yang: two things (black and white) in opposite relationship, visually represented by a black field dominating a white dot complementing a white field dominating a black dot.
A number of these essays have dealt with the logical equivalent of X’s and yin/yangs — for example, the discussion of the liar’s paradox and all its equivalents in popular psychology: Don’t be negative; commit yourself to not clinging; you shouldn’t be judgmental.
Remember the liar’s paradox: “Believe me when I tell you that I am now lying.”
The paradox has two clauses, each of which can be seen as dominating, working on, or governing the other; this construction makes us go all loopy, cycling through four logical steps:
- The truth of “I mean it” works on “What I’m telling you is a lie,” making it true.
- The truth of “What I’m telling you is a lie” works on “I mean it,” making it false.
- The falseness of “I mean it” works on “What I’m telling you is a lie,” making it false.
- The falseness of “What I’m telling you is a lie” works on “I mean it,” making it true.
Some chiasma are what the Greeks called antanaclasis — when a word is used twice with distinct meanings, as in the “fools kissing/kisses fooling” example above. Some are just sound play, as in the “frontal lobotomy” chestnut, but most are about the A-B/B-A relationship between two things — the ways that, given our world’s uncertainties:
Some days the bear will eat you, and some days you’ll eat the bear, Sometimes the dog wags the tail, and sometimes the tail wags the dog, Money sometimes makes fools of important persons, but it may also make important persons of fools.
Perhaps the most universal X relationship of all is the simple cost-benefit matrix:
|Benefits of A||Benefits of B|
|Costs of A||Costs of B|
The X forms from the way, in comparing options A and B, the costs of B and the benefits of A are linked, as are the benefits of B and the costs of A. Our indecision is the loopy back-and-forthing about which considerations should govern. Our choice is made when we figure out which option, A or B, dominates the other.
Which brings me (finally!) to my new favorite word- relations term. I’ve had to make it up, because, despite their prodigious output, the Greeks missed this one — and, incredibly, no one else seems to have corrected the omission.
One of our language’s greatest accommodations to life’s uncertainty is to generate words that describe the same thing but prescribe opposite things. For example, steadfast and pigheaded both describe sticking to a belief, but steadfast makes it sound good, and pigheaded makes it sound bad.
There is no word for “same description, opposite prescriptions.” Euphemism (another Greek contribution) is half of it — describing something more positively than is warranted, but we’re just as likely to do the opposite, and there isn’t a word for that. (Dysphemism? Nah.) We can talk about pessimists and optimists, about pejoratives and — what? majoratives? — but there’s no one word that simply holds the descriptively parallel but prescriptively opposite thoughts next to each other. It’s as if steadfast and pigheaded repel each other like magnets. It’s very hard for people to keep in mind that they describe the same thing, because their prescriptive flavor keeps them apart.
I’ve got two candidates for what to call such a word relationship. Well, three, but one of them is already serving as a synonym for contranym, so I can’t use it. That word is antagonym, which tells only half of the story anyway, because, though the word relationship I’m describing is prescriptively antagonistic (steadfast means do, and pigheaded means don’t), they are descriptively synonymous.
A word I’ve always loved — no, really, I’m not just saying that; I do love this word, though not enough to lay down my life — from biology is a good fit but is pretty obscure: pleiotropy, which is yet another Greek word meaning “many turnings.” In biology, it refers to multiple, sometimes contradictory, effects caused by a single gene, but its meaning could be extended to refer to a single phenomenon (for example, sticking with your belief) being turned in multiple directions (toward something good or something bad). Thus, we could call such word pairings pleiotropes.
Perhaps a better word for this relationship would be synantonym. It’s easier to see what it means. Two words that are synantonyms to each other are synonyms descriptively and antonyms prescriptively.
The opposite of sticking to a belief would be not sticking to it, which we could describe as accommodating or fickle, two words that prescribe opposite behaviors. To get X-ish about a choice between sticking with and not sticking with a belief, we could fill in a simple cost-benefit matrix:
And here are some more synantonyms, which I love incredibly:
Should I participate in this?
Should I stick with this?
Can I move him?
Should I go for it?