There are some cases in English where one can substitute in a word that normally has an opposite meaning, but instead produces the same meaning. For examples, consider the following meanings and uses:

To complete; to provide information requested by a form:

This is the time of year when millions of procrastinating Americans fill {in, out} an IRS Form 1040.

To complete:

We can use these azaelas to fill {in, out} that hole in the landscaping left by the utility workers.

(SE questions on that one can be found at least here, here, and here.)

To silence by disabling e.g. a circuit or machine:

Yes, Dr. Freud, I’m familiar with the model of brain function as spreading activation through neural circuits. That seems to be working fine in this patient, but every time activation spreads to the concept of sexuality, there’s an internal alarm that goes off screaming “shut those circuits {up, down}!”

Little to no probability of occurrence:

{Fat/slim} chance.

Is there a term for this, and what other good examples are out there?

  • 1
    Not sure at the moment what the term is (I shall have a look) but my favourite example of this is "fat chance/slim chance". Shut up/shut down actually isn't quite the same thing: "shut up" means to cease making sound, while "shut down" means to cause something to no longer operate. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 14:40
  • 2
    @JohnClifford Since you wrote your example as a comment instead of an answer, I edited it into the question, but I think the "fat" variant is just sarcastic while the "slim" variant is literal.
    – WBT
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 14:42
  • That's the inherent problem with these: I'm not sure there's a catch-all term or usage for them. You also arguably have "sit down/sit up"; though one implies moving from standing to a seated position, while the other implies moving from slouching to a seated position, the end result is the same. Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 14:43
  • In British English, the different prepositions make for a slightly different meaning, in all cases [except perhaps for fill out a form, which we never use anyway.] Tags adjusted accordingly.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 14:53
  • @AndrewLeach Then Ngram viewer reports that filling out a form is about as popular as filling in a form. Only from the point of view of phrasing, of course. Out takes the perspective of completion of the entire task, and in take the perspective of the individual fields to be marked.
    – deadrat
    Commented Apr 11, 2016 at 18:15


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