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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. Jul 14, 2013 at 19:26
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    Hmmm, aren't those adjectives in those cases? Jul 14, 2013 at 19:27
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    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, 2013 at 19:39
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    @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. Jul 14, 2013 at 19:46
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    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, 2013 at 23:37

3 Answers 3

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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? Jul 14, 2013 at 19:31
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    @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. Jul 14, 2013 at 20:03
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    I find that most of the time the entrance and exit are in fact the same place.
    – Paul S.
    Jul 14, 2013 at 23:10
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    @PaulS., same place, opposite direction.
    – zzzzBov
    Jul 15, 2013 at 0:02
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    @PaulS. So what? The emigrants leaving Russia well be the self-same people as the immigrants arriving in America.
    – tchrist
    Jul 15, 2013 at 0:08
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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'. Jul 15, 2013 at 9:16
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    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, 2014 at 19:29
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It seems opposite is a merger of two concepts, a spatial oppositum and a temporal oppausatum, each from pone put and pausa stop. The spatial opposite should be known as the complement and the temporal opposite as the numerical complement. The numerical complement nullifies (as in positive and negative mass, rather than annihilates as in positive and negative charge) properties whereas the complement makes a finite set.

So a woman or mulier is a sex, rather than wif or femina the gender, whereas man is a species (a being with a mind), whereas wapman or mas is a sex and wer or vir the gender. They can't be compared to each other. Woman and wapman are complementary, not opposite; the opposite of a woman is a hýpothetic being that wrecks wombs, ovaries, and XX organelles. (One in negative mass likely can't be constructed as then like charges and quarks attract each other into unique elements. One in antimatter could work but it'd destroy anyone. One in heterokiral molecules couldn't in itself wreck a usual woman but this could be considered a complement or spatial opposite. Nucleic acids of complementary kirality can't metavolize or breed with each other.) Likewise the complement of a man is a deer or elf or troll, dependent on scale. Related to the complement and opp[au]site is the privative, that which makes none, and the negative, that which is the oppausite, and the alternative, that which is the complement. So the privative of a man could be ebola or necrotizing fasciitis, the negative of a man some anencefaly, and the alternative of a man some ape or fossil, at scales different to aforesaid.

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