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I heard someone today say that lad is the opposite of lass. And we picked up a debate on whether woman is actually the opposite of man, which led me to question whether nouns can have opposites at all.

So can we say man is the opposite of woman? Can nouns even have opposites at all?

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Some nouns do, and some nouns don't. It depends. Some things come already opposed in meaning: cold/hot, dead/living, up/down, near/far, etc. Other things aren't so obviously binary. What's the opposite of blue? In one context, maybe red, or in another, maybe yellow. The thing is that "opposite of" is a binary relation, and most things don't come only in yes/no versions; there's a lot of variation and lots of grey areas. – John Lawler Jul 14 '13 at 19:26
Hmmm, aren't those adjectives in those cases? – Chibueze Opata Jul 14 '13 at 19:27
What's the opposite of "beauty"? "Ugliness". Health and illness. The opposite of "love" is "hate". There are are abstract nouns which inherently have their opposites. – Mari-Lou A Jul 14 '13 at 19:39
@Mari-LouA: I have a feeling that the impression of 'opposition' is giving from the 'root verbs' which these types of nouns derive from. So when there are no such root verbs, I guess that the relation has to be purely contextual like John Lawler suggests. – Chibueze Opata Jul 14 '13 at 19:46
Can anything have "opposites"? Red and green are generally considered opposites, and they are on the colour wheel, but the concept make no sense on the EMR spectrum. Black and white are opposites, but actually they're just our perception of the minimum and maximum light sensitivity in our eyes - our black is an Owl's grey. Totally abstract absolute concepts like left/right are opposite, but even they depend on which way you're facing... – naught101 Jul 14 '13 at 23:37
up vote 43 down vote accepted

Yes, nouns can have opposites. For example, the North is the opposite of the South, at least in the American Civil War, just as left and right are opposite in direction — and in theory opposite in politics.

The problem is that most nouns can be thought of as having many different properties, and you can easy flip a property on a different axis than the one that people are thinking of.

  • man – woman
  • man – superman
  • man – boy
  • man – beast
  • man – machine
  • man – nature
  • man — nam
  • man – uɐɯ

There are many other possible axes you can flip, all of which are the “opposite” of man along that axis.

Other examples of noun pairs that most people would think of as being opposite each other include:

  • sender — receiver
  • giver — taker
  • night — day
  • noon — midnight
  • innie — outie
  • predator — prey
  • floor — ceiling
  • top — bottom
  • immigrant — emigrant
  • entrance — exit
  • upstairs — downstairs
  • basement — attic
  • front — back
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So maybe, the problem is the meaning of the word "opposite"? If there could be a central meaning of a noun, especially proper and common nouns, can it have opposites when not used as adjectives? – Chibueze Opata Jul 14 '13 at 19:31
@ChibuezeOpata: Yes, the problem is the meaning of the word "opposite". It is only meaningful in certain cases, and in those cases it's the right word. But in other cases it just doesn't point in an obvious direction and people vary in what they think about it, so it's not the right word in those cases. It's a popular term, not (usually) a technical term. – John Lawler Jul 14 '13 at 20:03
I find that most of the time the entrance and exit are in fact the same place. – Paul S. Jul 14 '13 at 23:10
@PaulS., same place, opposite direction. – zzzzBov Jul 15 '13 at 0:02
@PaulS. So what? The emigrants leaving Russia well be the self-same people as the immigrants arriving in America. – tchrist Jul 15 '13 at 0:08

Woman is the opposite gender to man. When referring to people being opposites of each other, without qualifying, it's usually about their qualities and personalities being opposites.

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Surely woman is the opposite sex to man: 'woman' may be the opposite gender to 'man'. – TimLymington Jul 15 '13 at 9:16
That battle was lost long ago, Tim. "Gender" was long ago brought out of the world of grammar into the real world. – Colin Fine Jan 20 '14 at 19:29

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