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  Rick Sutcliffe


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Eider's observations on English Contrarianisms

In the fourth book of my Christian SF (to be published), The Builder, I introduce a character called Eider, who comes to our version of earth to be near her father, The Builder of Meta, at a time of crisis. She has learned English from books and television, but has not spoken it other than with him. Eider meets Lucas, her father's ward, and shares her observations on the language.

First excerpt

It started with Eider's remark over breakfast on the curious quality of the English language that, in the right context, words normally serving as antonyms instead resemble synonyms. She offered for evidence that one moment Elsie had been urging Lucas to drink "up" his milk, and the next he had drunk it "down." "This is," she concluded with the flourish of a prosecuting attorney, "incontrovertible evidence that English is a perverse, illogical, and contradictory language, reflecting the nature of the peoples who speak it."

Far from being offended, Lucas took up the challenge, offering uptown and downtown as a further illustration that "up" and "down" could both mean the same place. Eider countered with the observation that a right turn could be the wrong one. Lucas came back with the colloquialisms "fat chance" and "slim chance," but admitted this was inferior for they depended on one's tone of voice for meaning.

By the time they agreed she had coined a new figure of speech and rejected the combined expressions "rushing here and there," "searching high and low" and "from far and near" as "just not making the grade," they were almost silly with the effort. Elsie saw them off in very high spirits, chuckling to herself over Lucas's first (and obviously successful thus far) interest in a girl ... "Young lady" she reminded herself--and sagely added the family resemblance to John Dominic was obvious. She wondered briefly what the connection could be, before a myriad of household duties captured her attention.

Lucas and Eider meanwhile went no farther than the end of the driveway when the tone of things changed once more. They had been set off again when a passing acquaintance of Lucas's had called "Hi" as he cycled past. He had received "'Lo" in return, and when Lucas and Eider turned to each other and burst out laughing, the two of them managed to confirm forever in the mind of the passerby that Lucas was more than a little crazy.

But the mood was short lived as Eider miscalculated--sidling coquettishly up to Lucas's side, and placing her hand on his cheek, she remarked, with a false huskiness, "In the right context, to be against you could mean to be with you."

Second Excerpt

Eider took the proffered refill, but rather than drink more right away, she first frowned, then quickly followed this with an impish grin. Exhibiting again the mercurial attention typical of the well-informed and eclectic, she remarked, "That's the interesting thing about English. It's so illogical and full of contradictions. Words normally meaning the opposite can mean the same thing in the right context. It's a Humpty-Dumpty language."

Lucas forgot his discomfort completely at this reference to one of his own favourites from Carroll. They returned to their breakfast-time banter while Elsie cleared the first course dishes and retreated to the kitchen. Eider offered to help, but Elsie would not hear of it. Lucas and John Dominic knew she would brook no interference in the serving of a meal.

"You mean when we use a word it means just what we choose it to mean, neither more and nothing less? he adapted, adding, "Are you going to coin more Eiderisms?"

Eider laughed and turned to her father to explain. "It occurred to me this morning that Elsie could have said 'drink it down' instead of 'drink it up,' so 'up' and 'down' in this context resemble synonyms instead of antonyms. Just now, she said I'd get hot if I got a cold."

Lucas, who had been mulling over likely candidates, added on the heels of this declaration a couple of tries of his own. "It's like saying that you know the ins and outs of BASIC and then calling it a 'high level' computing language."

"The first one misses a bit, but the second is close," Eider got up and went through the hallway door to conduct a demonstration. Peering around the corner, she declared, "From here, if I wanted one of you, I could ask either 'come in here' or 'come out here'. Both would mean the same thing, so 'in' and 'out,' which are normally opposites, are in this context the same, or at least are used in the same way."

Lucas frowned. "Aren't some of these language-independent, so long as the idiom is present?"

"Contradictory idioms are not present in many languages." Eider paused momentarily to reflect, then giggled slightly as she flounced back into the room, brushing purposefully against her father and saying, "In the right context, to be with you is the same as to be against you."

Lucas flushed at his recollection of Eider's first try at that one, her words evoking the close intimacy of their own adventures which part of his mind didn't wish to rehearse. However, when Mr. Dominic made no immediate response, Lucas weakly managed, "Is that as near as you can see or as far as you can tell?"

Dominic now contributed a few of his own, though with more sober intent. "Eider, I don't want to encourage your spendthriftiness." He paused briefly for the sake of effect and then continued more seriously, "but we should go downtown--or is that uptown?--to the Sears store in Chilliwack after supper and get you some clothes. The ones you have might do as casual wear for rolling on pathways or being chased through the woods, but something more dressy would be better for attending church tomorrow."

As Eider nodded embarrassed agreement, over the need to do something about her crude wardrobe, Elsie put a temporary end to the verbal fun by returning with dessert. This was a richly plentiful "Christmas" pudding she preserved in vast quantities every year and served saturated in rich cream whenever company came. Such confections take one's whole concentration, so for a time the silence was broken only by expressions of pleasure over the delightful treat, except at one point Lucas could not resist another Carrollian temptation and was heard to mumble, "Impenetrability! That's what I say."

NOTE: The expression "I'll be along shortly" has the sound and syntax of an Eiderism, but not its semantics.


These are single words (or homonyms) that in the right context can have opposite meanings.

Of an initial group, "those who have left" and "those who are left" create a partition. The two sets share no persons in common, but both are described with "left".

To "sanction" may mean either to give official approval to, or it may mean to forbid.

To "cleave" may mean to stick close together, or it may mean to cut apart."

The word "im-pregn-able" means not pregnable, as in "the impregnable fortress". A woman could be infertile because she has an "im-pregn-able" womb. On the other hand "impregn-able", means able to become pregnant. A fertile woman would thus have an "impregn-able" womb. The two root words "-pregn-" are different. The one in im-pregn-able is "pre-gna", ultimately descended from the Latin root "prehendere", meaning "to grasp" (as in "comprehendere"). The one in impregn-able is also "pre-gna", but meaning "before birth" and ultimately descended from an unattested form "prae-gen-". (contributed by Andrew)

The word "vegetative" can mean productive, full of life, vigorous and growing. But it also refers to someone in a passive state showing little or no mental activity, that is, nearly dead. This one may miss a little but is close - editor (contributed by Andrew)

Like what you see? Want to exchange links? Want to contribute original or attributed material? Contact Us. If We use your material, We'll acknowledge the source. I would particularly like to hear of more Eiderisms.


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Updated 2005 12 28