I'll give two examples to try to clarify what kind of word I'm looking for.

"The water diminishes the fire. The fire is diminished by the water." The water and the fire are set against each other, so in a way they are both acting in opposition, and in such a way that only one of them can "win" or "remain". However english seems to favor the water as the "actor" even though they are both acting against each other. It seems that the fact of the water "winning" against the fire promotes it into becoming the active agent, and somehow the fire's loss against the water makes it the object. I am looking for a verb that allows the fire to be the active agent: "the fire V the water", where V is some verb that describes the fire setting itself against the water (object) and losing some or all of its essence as a result.

I'm wondering if there is such a word for V that does not require some sort of help using a preposition, like "the fire dies from the water", which seems to make the water the active agent. I'm really wondering if there is a very direct verb, so that V is just a single word, or at least so that the water is the object.

Another example: Let y ≥ 1, so that y has a certain fixed "strength". The relation x ≤ -y means that "y diminishes x": as y increases, x decreases (without bound). We can also say that "x is diminished by y". What does x do to y? We know that y might have to decrease if x increases. However, this is limited because y ≥ 1, and so x's success "against" y is bounded: x must always be less than or equal to -1. Indeed, x does not increase in response to a decrease in y but we can always increase y by some amount that is large enough to decrease x. In this way the relationship is asymmetric. So clearly x's conflict with y is somehow tragic because its success is bounded and its failure is unbounded. We can say that "x counterposes y", but it doesn't quite capture the fact that x loses to y or is likely to lose to y. What we really want is something like "x (poorly counterposes) y". So is there some word that means "to oppose something poorly/weakly/asymmetrically/badly", or "to oppose something and become weakened as a result"?

One verb that kind of works in these situations is "suffer": "the fire suffers the water", and "x suffers y". However this verb only weakly embeds the opposition between the fire/x and water/y. Another problem with this word is that it doesn't convey that fire/x is at a profound disadvantage, just that its relationship with water/y is somehow "bad" or at least "not good".

So ultimately I'm curious if there exists a transitive verb that is equivalent to something like "oppose at disadvantage", and in particular for the verb to not include any notion that the force of opposition is at all balanced with that which it opposes.

If it seems that no such word exists, is there a technical (language based, non-cultural) reason for it?

EDIT: Global Charm asked for another example:

"Alice humiliates (diminishes the status of) her school rival. Alice's rival is humiliated (status is diminished). Alice's rival V alice."

In my opinion Alice's rival is in some way actively involved with getting humiliated: in one way or another Alice's rival entered into a rivalry, and positioned herself to be defeated by Alice (even if defeat wasn't certain, it was possible). We could guess that Alice's rival probably poorly opposed Alice.


One word immediately comes to mind, although it does take a preposition:

The fire surrenders to the water.

There are a couple of other words that don't need a preposition, although they are lacking the sense of a struggle:

The fire accepts the water.
The fire embraces the water.

All of these assume that the battle is over, however.

If you are looking for something that just means "oppose at disadvantage," and which doesn't preclude the possibility of the weaker somehow winning against the stronger, then you could say:

The fire challenges the water.

However, that doesn't really imply that the fire is at a disadvantage. (Even though challengers are generally assumed to be untested and weaker than existing champions.)

What I'd like to say is:

The fire David-and-Goliaths the water.

But while I think that exactly matches what you're looking for, it's not a real verb. Unless you think it's so easily understood that it could be used in the absence of anything else. (Underdogs, too, is not a verb.)

I'm afraid I can't come up with something exactly along the lines you are looking for. There may not be a single-word verb that fits. But I will provide these as possibilities, or at least suggestions for somebody else's answer.

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  • Yes I like challenge actually because it does imply that the object is in some way established, which hints at the asymmetry. – ttbo Jul 31 '18 at 2:08

The fire obeys the water.

There are probably other words related to the training of animals, where the animal is tamed by the trainer. Are there other analogies beyond fire and water that we should consider here?

Edited to add:

There are words associated with fighting and conflict that suggest defence and defeat more than attack and victory, such as hinder, resist, parry, or retard.

There is also the possibility of using under as a prefix where over is more common. It adds a certain tone to the expression, e.g. to say that an audience was underwhelmed by an artistic performance implies judgement as well as reportage. These forms are easily understood by English readers even though they may not be common in dictionaries, at least as of yet.

So perhaps Alice’s rival undermatched her.

BTW, and trusting as ever in the google, it seems like undermatching is a thing in studies of higher education, so its arrival in the dictionaries might not be far off.

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  • I don't think obey works because it doesn't necessarily imply the conflict between the two. A servent can happily obey his master, or he can resist and then be coerced into obeying. – ttbo Jul 31 '18 at 2:27
  • @ttbo You may have uncovered a fundamental property of English. The concept of joining battle with the foreknowledge of defeat might not actually have a simple verb. – Global Charm Jul 31 '18 at 2:41
  • I wonder if it's possible. It seems like a relatively simple concept. Perhaps there is no need for it because for some reason we always just choose the winner as the active entity. – ttbo Jul 31 '18 at 2:52

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