Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Wake Up in Hellish War

Posted by Neal on December 16, 2005

Last weeek Doug and Adam were practicing singing “Silent Night” for their Sunday school Christmas program. This was actually quite an accomplishment for Adam, since slow, solemn songs often make him break out in sobs. With some work, though, he got so he could listen to it, sing it, and even peck it out on the piano. Now he and Doug were having some fun with it. Adam sang,

Noisy day…

“Hey, yeah!” said Doug. “It’s opposite day! Hey, Dad! What’s the opposite of holy?” I thought about telling him profane, but decided to go with plain old unholy. Doug continued with

unholy day…

I got to thinking about a seminar in lexical semantics I’d once taken, where I learned that the concept of opposite isn’t as straightforward as it seems. The most general definitions have opposites as pairs of words that are very similar semantically but which differ on at least one dimension. Silent and noisy would be gradable opposites: things can be silent, noisy, or neither, but not both. Night and day: This is a pair of relational opposites, since something can be day, night, or neither, but not both, AND we’re not talking about points on some dimension. I’m assuming holy and unholy would be another pair of gradable opposites, given the wide variety of things in the world that are neither holy nor unholy.

Meanwhile, Doug and Adam were moving on:

Nothing is wild, nothing is dark.

Interesting, I thought. They’re looking for opposites of nouns, adjectives, and even quantifiers now, but is makes it through unchanged. But if you’re gonna change the all along with the calm, then you really need to get the is, too: Saying “Nothing is wild” means the same thing as “All is calm.” Yeah, what they should really do is–

“Dad, what’s the opposite of virgin?”

“Oh! Uh, is there a word for that? I guess … non-virgin.”

That would be a complementary opposite: To the best of my knowledge, either you’re a virgin or you’re not. Luckily, Doug and Adam just wanted to finish the song, and didn’t ask for details.


6 Responses to “Wake Up in Hellish War”

  1. J said


    A meme has me ‘tagging’ five people, so I decided to push the ‘next blog’ button and find five blog that I hadn’t previously read.

    Germany Doesn’t Suck

  2. J said

    erm..’five blogs’ I meant.

  3. Big Ben said

    There was a really entertaining post at about “what is the opposite of a hat” a while back. The discussion in the comments, later continued in comments at unfogged got determinedly silly, but in the end it was established that the opposite of a thing is that very thing with a mustache. So maybe the opposite of a virgin would be a virgin with a mustache? At least it could get you out of some uncomfortable explanations.

  4. Neal said

    Big Ben,
    That post was crazy, man. I recommend it to anyone who’s read this far. Thanks!

  5. Lil said

    This is the first time that I’ve popped in here– what a wonderful post; it had me laughing out loud in my office.

  6. Anonymous said

    Obviously, the opposite of “virgin” is “teenager”.

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