OBH analyses

Two recent One Big Happy strips in which the analysis of words into parts plays a role: one from 10/14 with a Ruthian eggcorn (treating archive as ark + hive); and one from 10/23 in which Joe puzzles over the consequences of appreciating that nobody is no + body.

The cartoons:



archive. The word is clearly unfamiliar to Ruthie, but she’s always keen to find meaningful stuff in unfamiliar vocabulary. In this case, she latches onto the first syllable /ark/, and identifies it as the item ark (as in Noah’s ark, which is the context where she would have heard or read it). That leaves the second syllable, /ajv/. Not an item she knows, nor is /kajv/ — but /hajv/ is a real word, having to do with bees and spelled HIVE. Bingo.

The Library Lady shows the pages of the Dusty the Platypus book (the cartoon character seems to be an invention of the cartoonist) to the kids, so Ruthie might have been able to see the HIVE in ARCHIVE. (Of course given her eggcornish reinterpretation, she would spell it ARKHIVE.)

The opposite of nobody. Not an easy question. At least in the US, kids are accustomed to being asked about the opposites of words, from early childhood on. Parents and teachers are supposed to drill kids on opposites, from toddlerhood on, as a crucial exercise in learning vocabulary (I experienced these lessons as a child, and then watched my daughter and grand-daughter experiencing them). I’ll illustrate these materials below, with a long list of “opposites” from about 50 of them — and some deeply puzzled commentary on this pedagogical tradition.

But first, Joe in the OBH strip. In a wonderful moment of irony that I suspect was intentional on the part of the cartoonist, Joe is asked about an opposite that seems to have no place at all in the American pedagogical tradition, while simultaneously being the canonical, historically defining example of opposition — from Aristotle.

Joe is stymied by the question, and falls back on his (correct) perception that nobody is a compound pronoun, with parts no and body; he racks his brain for some opposite that he knows, and – yes! — there it is (and it’s on my big list), yes – no. So: yesbody. (Ok, it’s not actually a word Joe has ever heard, but it could be a word, right? — Joe thinks hopefully.)

I can easily see three correct responses to the opposite-of-nobody question:

(option a) the Aristotelian contrary of nobody: everybody. Typical examples of “opposites” — big – little, short – long, low – high — are in fact Aristotelian contraries (if either one of them applies, the other does not, but it’s possible that neither of them applies)

(option b) the Aristotelian contradictory (negation) of nobody: somebody. Parallel to adjective pairs like possible – impossible, connected – unconnected, negotiable – non-negotiable: one of the pair applies and the other does not (Note: there’s a persistent inclination to “strengthen” contradictories to contraries; unkind, for example, now means, not merely ‘not kind’, but ‘inconsiderate and harsh to others’ (NOAD).)

(option c) a noun meaning ‘person of considerable significance’, the Aristotelian contrary of the noun nobody ‘person of no signficance’ (a nouning of the pronoun): bigshot, etc.

Background notes. The Aristotelian story was about propositions (and, secondarily, about sentences in some language that express these propositions). Its underpinning can be diagrammed in the (Aristotelian) Square of Oppositions:

(#3) The two dimensions in the diagram are universal (at the top) vs. particular (at the bottom); and affirmative (on the left) vs. negative (on the right)

This conceptualization can then be extended to predications (and to expression types functioning as predicatives, especially adjectives), moving from quantification, as in #3 (on the universality dimension, from the universal pole to the particular pole), to location on a scale with polar elements (for instance, from a BIG pole to a LITTLE pole). Which brings us to modern discussions of opposites (or antonyms) in English, largely focused on adjectives at the poles of some scale (as above): on scales from big to little, long to short, high to low.

The English pronoun nobody (in #2) fits right into the diagram in #3, as a negative universal expression, with the affrmative universal everybody as its contrary affirmative universal. Remarkably, these pronouns seem not to figure at all in popular treatments of opposites in English.

Opposites for kids. At some point in the history of education in the United States (and probably elsewhere) mastering the vocabulary of opposites — being able to supply an “opposite” word for some given word — came to be seen as a significant goal in childhood education. I know nothing about the history or about the rationale for pursuing this particular task, but I do know that the usual reason given from drilling preschoolers in this task — that they need to learn the vocabulary — is utterly preposterous, since all the words in question are ones the children already know and use, like big and little.

So the exercise must in some way be about conceptual relationships — contrariety, contradiction, and (as we shall see) more, much more — in the belief that internalizing knowledge about these will benefit small children in some way. So, mostly, it’s not about words at all (though the testing materials, like the worksheet Joe is agonizing over in #2, generally do seem to assume that there is only one correct opposite word for any given word), but about more abstract relationships.

The most basic materials are intended for parents to use with toddlers and other preschoolers. Consider The Measured Mom site (“Tools for teaching”), with its  posting “25 books about opposites” (for preschoolers) by Anna G. on 1/10/17: delightful little books, charmingly illustrated, including several by well-known authors of children’s books:

The Foot Book: Dr. Seuss’s Wacky Book of Opposites
Curious George’s Opposites, by H. A. Rey
Opposites, by Sandra Boynton
Eric Carle’s Opposites
Big Dog, Little Dog, by P. D. Eastman
Olivia’s Opposites, by Ian Falconer


Then there’s a pile of teaching materials on opposites: worksheets, flash cards, bingo games (test materials in the guise of fun), and so on.


From all of this stuff (on the order of 50 items, though it’s hard to count exactly), this giant list of pairs that have been labeled as opposites (the ordering within the pairs is irrelevant here):

good – bad; big / large – small / little; light – dark, light – heavy; short – long; short – tall; left – right; wrong – right; front – back; in front – behind / in back; soft – hard; soft / smooth – rough; soft / quiet – loud; hard / difficult / easy; full – empty; wet – dry; low – high; hot – cold; slow – quick / fast; well / healthy – sick; black – white; yummy – yucky; open – closed; open – close; up – down; clean – dirty; old – new; old – young; good – bad; empty – full; happy – sad; alive – dead; fresh – rotten; stop – go; stay – go; come – go; straight – bent / crooked; asleep – awake; strong – weak; in – out; inside – outside; expensive – cheap; wide – narrow; fat – thin / skinny; thick – thin; ugly – beautiful / pretty; loose – tight; tied – untied; messy – neat; under – over; above – below / beneath; yes – no; night – day; man – woman; boy – girl; him – her; head – foot; summer – winter; hairy – hairless / smooth / bald; apart / together; same – different; top – bottom; off – on; sour – sweet; near – far; sink – float; hello – goodbye; start – finish; pull – push; add – subtract; follow – lead; buy – sell; sit – stand; love – hate; play – work; ask – answer; fail – succeed; give – get / receive; lose – find; fix – break; less – more; sunny – cloudy

(Ambiguous items, like old (vs. new or vs. young), are disambiguated visually, often in clever ways, so these materials also teach about ambiguity, though I can’t tell whether that’s an intentional goal or just something that comes with the territory.)

Note 1: some of the materials deliberately move to fanciful pairings or introduce (with pedagogical intent) vocabulary the children might not be familiar with, for instance:

free – caged; positive – negative; opaque – translucent; dotted – striped; clear – blurry; nice – grouchy; marry – divorce

Note 2 : the material for preschoolers avoids fat – thin / skinny, presumably so as not to encourage negative attitudes on the topic (though the kids certainly know and use the words); and, presumably for similar reasons and with the same proviso, none of these materials (for any age group) offer smart – stupid.

Note 3: many kids in elementary school — I was one — are eventually introduced to another set of what are referred to as “opposites”, complementary colors on the color wheel: red and green as opposites, similarly blue and orange, and yellow and purple.

In the big list, contrary adjectives are clearly the central examples, and they are the ones these materials start with and then diverge from; they form the basis on which kids are to (tacitly) induce what opposite means. But the pairs are all over the map: some are contradictories (man – woman), some are semantic converses (give – get / receive), some have a reversative (fix – break), and so on through quite a variety of contrastive pairings (hello – goodbye? sour – sweet?). I really don’t know what kids are supposed to make of this. Or why they should be enaging in the task.

2 Responses to “OBH analyses”

  1. Uly Says:

    Big Dog, Little Dog, by P. D. Eastman

    You’ve been led astray by the title. The story isn’t about opposites in any sense of the word, it’s about the daily life of dogs, leading to a dog party, a big dog party! What a dog party! And some dog has a really snazzy hat.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      It appeared in a list of children’s books about opposites. And from the Booklist description: “Two dogs who are opposite in every way are also the best of friends. The bold, colorful drawings are appealing and emphasize the concepts of size, color, and opposites.”

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