Reversed meanings

In the One Big Happy strip of 4/25, Joe is being grilled by his father on the meanings of words — “defining words” being a common task for schoolchildren — and, on being challenged by the word /tæktɪks/, whose meaning is unclear to him, he proposes to break the word down into recognizable meaningful parts, from which the meaning of the whole can be predicted. A perfectly reasonable strategy, but one that is stunningly often useless.


Joe appears to have isolated the parts /tæk/, /tɪk/, and the plural /s/, but didn’t identify the first as any item spelled tack or the second as any item spelled tick; instead his attention was caught by the combination /tæktɪk/, so similar to /tɪktæk/, the trade name Tic Tac.

And went on to assign some meaning to the reversal of the two parts, reasoning (apparently) that reversing the order should correspond, iconically, to reversing (in some way) the meaning of Tic Tac. What would be the reverse of a breath mint? Well, the function of a breath mint is to sweeten the breath, to make it smell good —  so the reverse function would be to make the breath smell bad.

Background: Tic Tacs. From Wikipedia:


Tic Tac (stylized as “tic tac”) is a brand of small, hard [breath] mint manufactured by the Italian company Ferrero. They were first produced in 1969 and are now available in a variety of flavours in over 100 countries.
Tic Tacs are usually sold in small transparent plastic boxes with a flip-action living hinge lid.
… Tic Tac were first introduced by Ferrero in 1969, under the name “Refreshing Mints”. In 1970, the name was changed to Tic Tac, after the distinctive clicking sound made by the pack being opened and closed.

The uses of metathesis. The metathesis of adjacent syllables (as with Joe’s Tic Tacs > tactics) is well-known in several circumstances in many languages: in speech errors, in historical changes, in reshapings to satisfy some constraint(s) on phonological form, and (more systematically) in secret languages, or language games. But systematic metathesis as a meaning-bearing morphological process — as a way of forming opposites or reversatives, for example — is at best rarely attested.

Secret languages / language games sometimes involve syllable exchanges at greater distance, as in this classic example, from Joel Sherzer’s “Talking backwards in Cuna: The sociological reality of phonological descriptions”, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 26.4.343-53 (1970):

Sorsik sunmakke, “talking backwards,” is [a language game] found among the Cuna Indians of San Blas, Panama. … The purpose of sorsik sunmakke is apparently not concealment but rather play for play’s sake; it is performed mainly by children. [Systematic phonological deformations often function as secret languages, simultaneously hiding the content of talk from others while affirming in-group bonds.]

The rule for playing sorsik sunmakke is quite simple. It consists of moving the first syllable of a word to the end of a word.

Other sorts of reversals (some associated with Satanism). In backmasking, secret messages are concealed in recordings, and are only revealed by playing them backwards. From Wikipedia:

The “Paul is dead” rumor popularized the idea of backmasking in popular music. After [WKNR-FM DJ Russ] Gibb’s [1969] show [in which a caller claimed that Beatles songs contained backmasked messages that Paul McCartney had died], many more songs were found to contain phrases that sounded like known spoken languages when reversed. Initially, the search was done mostly by fans of rock music; but, in the late 1970s, during the rise of the Christian right in the United States, fundamentalist Christian groups began to claim that backmasked messages could bypass the conscious mind and reach the unconscious mind, where they would be unknowingly accepted by the listener. In 1981, Christian DJ Michael Mills began stating on Christian radio programs that Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” contained hidden Satanic messages that were heard by the unconscious.

In early 1982, the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Paul Crouch hosted a show with self-described neuroscientist William Yarroll, who argued that rock stars were cooperating with the Church of Satan to place hidden subliminal messages on records. Also in 1982, fundamentalist Christian pastor Gary Greenwald held public lectures on dangers of backmasking, along with at least one mass record-smashing. During the same year, thirty North Carolina teenagers, led by their pastor, claimed that singers had been possessed by Satan, who used their voices to create backward messages, and held a record-burning at their church.

No, there is no actual evidence that people can subliminally detect  backmasked messages. Or that tactics are Satanic reversals of Tic Tacs.


3 Responses to “Reversed meanings”

  1. John Baker Says:

    Are there any examples where Joe’s strategy would have worked, and reversing the components of a term would have produced an antonym?

    • Stewart Kramer Says:

      The examples I can think of are just word play: To retrace our zigzag route, we’ll need to zagzig. They were shilly-shallying, but then they shallied when they should have shillied. (The contrasting vowels seem to imply an alternation between directions or choices, so the non-standard vowel progression might swap options.)

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      To John Baker: I meant to say this in the posting, but it seems to have vanished in the editing process: No, I don’t know of any cases, beyond word play examples of the sort Stewart Kramer wrote about in *his* answer to your question.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: