Synonyms, Antonyms & Scripture

While studying analogies and relationships between terms, I have been considering synonyms and antonyms, and I have come to some surprising realizations.

Defining Synonym and Antonym

A synonym is a word that has the same meaning as another word in the same language. If you were asked to think of several words and their synonyms, you would probably not have too much difficulty: rope & cord, huge & enormous, stone & rock, sleep & doze, etc. English has such an extensive vocabulary that most words have a synonym or near synonym. But if I asked you to think of words that have no synonym, that’s harder. Some possibilities are pencil, helmet, and elbow. But it takes some careful thought. In fact, can you think of a verb or adjective that has no synonym?

An antonym is a word that has the opposite meaning as another word in the same language. By its definition, it appears that antonym is the antonym of synonym. You can probably think up several antonym pairs without too much effort: freedom & slavery, large & small, clean & dirty, father & mother. But if you look around, you will see many things that have no antonym: bottle, brick, book, cabinet, keyboard. It seems about as difficult to think of things that have no synonym as it is to think of things that do have an antonym. Why is this?

Antonym Profundities

Synonyms say something about language and its development. But antonyms say something about the nature of the thing itself, that in someway it has a counterpart. If you develop a list of antonym pairs, they will likely be words that represent fundamental concepts. They seem to reflect something about how God made the world (light & darkness, evening & morning, male & female), or about the fallen nature (sin & righteousness, good & evil, freedom & slavery), or about kinds of separation or direction (present & absent, in & out, left & right).

There are also different species of antonyms. Some are complementary or binary, A and non-A, such as true & false, motion & rest, whole & part. In these cases there are only two options: if a statement is not true then it is false; if an object is moving then it is not at rest; the whole of something is not just a part; and vice versa for each of these.

Relational antonyms lie on a continuum, such as large & small, full & empty, rich & poor. These antonym pairs tend to be adjectives, and there are intermediate states. A house that is not large is not necessarily small; a pitcher can be neither full nor empty; if your uncle is not rich, it doesn’t mean he is poor.

Then there are opposites that are a compromise of these first two types: antonyms that have not a continual but a single intermediate state: positive, negative, & zero; above, below, & level.

Some antonym pairs exist in a relationship with a reversed direction or focus, such as husband & wife, lend & borrow, employer & employee. In such pairs, one can usually not exist without the other: if there is a husband there is a wife; if one lends another borrows; a person with no employees is not an employer. These are called converse antonyms.

Some words have more than one antonym, depending on how you think about them. What is the antonym of father? Is it mother? Or is it son? The definition of father is ‘male parent.’ The opposite of male is female, and a female parent is a mother. On the other hand, the opposite of parent is child, and a male child is a son.  Other examples are possible.

Synonyms and Antonyms in Scripture

Biblical authors make regular use of synonyms and antonyms. A quick glance through Proverbs will reveal this. Consider all the antonyms in this passage:

For the perverse person is an abomination to the Lord, but His secret counsel is with the upright. The curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked, but He blesses the home of the just. Surely He scorns the scornful, but gives grace to the humble. The wise shall inherit glory, but shame shall be the legacy of fools. (Prov. 3:32-35)

Proverbs also include synonym pairs for poetic purposes:

Does not wisdom cry out, and understanding lift up her voice? She takes her stand on the top of the high hill, beside the way, where the paths meet. She cries out by the gates, at the entry of the city, at the entrance of the doors: “To you, O men, I call, and my voice is to the sons of men. O you simple ones, understand prudence, and you fools, be of an understanding heart.” (Prov. 8:1-5)

Ecclesiastes 3:2-8 has a poetic list of fourteen verbal antonyms:

A time to be born, and a time to die; A time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; A time to kill, and a time to heal; A time to break down, and a time to build up; A time to weep, and a time to laugh; A time to mourn, and a time to dance; A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; A time to gain, and a time to lose; A time to keep, and a time to throw away; A time to tear, and a time to sew; A time to keep silence, and a time to speak; A time to love, and a time to hate; A time of war, and a time of peace.

Can you identify the synonyms and antonyms in Matthew 7:13-14?

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

How many examples of synonyms and antonyms in the Bible can you find?

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