Trying to make sense of English’s opposites

On February 10, 1990 Paula Abdul’s Opposites Attract hit number one on Billboard magazine’s top 100, where it remained for the next three weeks. Learning that made me glad I lived with a family of English speakers during my infancy and subsequent formative years, when my brain was at its most absorbent. I cannot imagine having to learn my long-since-established native tongue as a second language.

There is very little logic to English. Dough, tough, cough, plough and through all end with the same four letters, but dough rhymes with blow, tough rhymes with stuff, cough rhymes with off, plough rhymes with now, and through rhymes with two, even though it’s pronounced the same as threw.

At least some things about English are easy. Like opposites. “Small” is the opposite of “big,” “west” is the opposite of “east,” and “light” is the opposite of “dark,” except when it’s the opposite of “heavy.”

But deducing exact opposites can be challenging. The inverse of hard is easy, except when it’s soft. Used and old are both opposites of new, and the opposite of fast can be either slow or eat. To most people the opposite of safe is dangerous, but in baseball, safe’s opposite is out.

Some opposites are a matter of personal preference. Certain people think sound and noise are synonymous, but more often than not the two terms are polar opposites.

Sounds can be pleasant. Early risers know that some of the most pleasant sounds imaginable take place before the sun comes up. The predawn ticking of a clock in a space where it is the only detectable sound is both soothing and inspiring. The same goes for tweeting bluebirds in the springtime, or walking in the woods during a snowstorm when, if the hiker pauses, the only thing they’ll hear is an utter lack of sound.

Noise, on the other hand, is very often obnoxious, and in ways that run the gamut from mildly annoying to absolutely infuriating. While a clock’s soft ticking can be mood-enhancing, the shrill noise its alarm makes when it goes off can jangle an awakener’s nerves long after he, she, or they have achieved consciousness.

The chirping of robins is a sweet sound. However, the cawing of carrion- devouring crows is grating noise. And while hiking silently through the woods (remember: silence qualifies as a sound) is pleasing, a stick unexpectedly snapping under one’s foot is a noise, as is the growling, real or imagined, a hiker hears deep in the woods where various wild animals reside.

Circumstances often determine what qualifies as sound or noise. A baby’s laugh is a sound of pure joy, but the shrieks emitted by an overtired infant is noise, and ear-splitting noise at that.

“Early” and “late” are opposites. But they can also be the same, since 3:30 AM is late for night owls, but early for people who have to make donuts or deliver newspapers.

One thing that’s certain: “same” and “identical” are synonyms. They have to be, because they’re both the opposite of opposite.

Often the difference between pleasing sound and objectionable noise depends on the ear of the beholder, particularly when it comes to music. Some people love the sound of a country ballad, but others identify it as twangy caterwauling. The same differences of opinion exist between aficionados of rock, classical, hip-hop, and every other musical genre.

Paula Abdul is a fine singer, but her hit single was based on a false premise. After all, if opposites really do attract, how come the wealthy, intelligent and attractive Ms. Abdul and I haven’t gotten together yet?

Andy Young
May 3, 2024

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