Category Archives: Poetics

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?

Analogy in Proverbs

In my first post of this series on analogies, I explained that one typical analogy form is the ordered-pairA is to B as C is to D, or more briefly A : B :: C : D. This is how most people think about analogies, having seen them in the vocabulary or reasoning sections of standardized tests. But in reading through Proverbs recently, I uncovered about fifty analogies, most of which can be reduced to ordered-pair form.

One Ordered Pair Illuminates the Other

For example, Proverbs 3:12 says,

“For whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights.”

This analogy can be reduced to an ordered pair:

The Lord : His beloved :: a father : his delighted son

The common concept between these analogous pairs is that the first corrects or disciplines the second. The comparison is helpful because the familiar, concrete image of a father correcting the son in whom he delights illuminates the less familiar, more abstract idea of the Lord correcting His beloved.

Here are two more examples:

“As a dog returns to his own vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” (Prov. 26:11)

“Where there is no wood, the fire goes out; and where there is no talebearer, strife ceases.” (Prov. 26:20)

In those examples, the first analogous pair illuminates the second.

Synonymous Pairs

Rather than using an analogy to illuminate the less familiar by means of the more, many proverbs simply restate the main point using synonymous pairs. Here are several examples in which the ordered pairs are synonyms:

“Then they will call on me, but I will not answer; They will seek me diligently, but they will not find me.” (Prov. 1:28, cf. Mt. 7:7)

“I have not obeyed the voice of my teachers, nor inclined my ear to those who instructed me!” (Prov. 5:13)

“Does not wisdom cry out, and understanding lift up her voice?” (Prov. 8:1)

“For a harlot is a deep pit, and a seductress is a narrow well.” (Prov. 23:27)

Antithetical Pairs

Many other proverbs set up an antithesis, using antonyms in ordered pairs:

“The curse of the Lord is on the house of the wicked, but He blesses the home of the just.” (Prov. 3:33)

“A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is the grief of his mother.” (Prov. 10:1)

“The hand of the diligent will rule, but the lazy man will be put to forced labor.” (Prov. 12:24)

Analogies by means of Hebrew parallelism are employed throughout Scripture. In my next post, we will consider analogies in the New Testament.

Shakespeare’s Use of the Liberal Arts: Rhetoric

81Few4FQ9cL[1]In her invaluable book Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, Sister Miriam Joseph tells us that, according to Shakespeare scholar T. W. Baldwin, William Shakespeare “was trained in the heroic age of grammar school rhetoric in England, and he shows knowledge of the complete system, in its most heroic proportions. He shows a grasp of the theory as presented by the various texts through Quintilian.” In fact, a contemporary reported that Shakespeare was a country schoolmaster before he came to London, and at that time the grammar school would have significantly familiarized him with the arts of language.  Many passages in Shakespeare’s plays show such a familiarity with the technical vocabulary of rhetoric. Continue reading Shakespeare’s Use of the Liberal Arts: Rhetoric

Shakespeare’s Use of the Liberal Arts: Logic

81Few4FQ9cL[1]The classical Christian school movement is seeking to revive a form of education that helped shape some the greatest minds of western civilization. But how do we know that our father’s were trained according to the Trivium? One delightful demonstration of this is William Shakespeare’s frequent and detailed use of the liberal arts of grammar, logic and rhetoric in his plays and poems,  a use thoroughly identified by Sister Miriam Joseph in her book Shakespeare’s Use of the Arts of Language. In this well-researched book, she argues that Shakespeare’s application of formal logic is evidenced in his use of definition, genus and species, syllogistic vocabulary, applied syllogisms, enthymemes, and more. Let me give some of her clearer examples. Continue reading Shakespeare’s Use of the Liberal Arts: Logic

A “100 Cupboards” Story

My students and I are having a lot of fun in Good Books I . We finished The Horse and His Boy by C. S. Lewis, and are now reading N.D. Wilson’s 100 Cupboards. Later we will read The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, and Watership Down by Richard Adams. One way to appreciate a story is to enter into it, trying the think the author’s thoughts after him. So I thought you might enjoy the writing assignments I am giving my students after each book:

The Horse and His Boy
Write a story about an adventure from your own life, and make your story imitate the style of Aravis’ story in chapter 3. The story should be true, though you may embellish it slightly.

100 Cupboards
In chapter 12, Henry and Richard have been to Tempore, Carnassus, Badon Hill, and perhaps other places we are not told about. I want you to write a short story about Henry and Richard going through another cupboard looking for Henrietta. Make your story consistent with the rest of the story, the characters, and the cryptic description of the place from Grandfather’s journal.

The Hobbit
After the Battle of the Five Armies we are told that, on his return home, Bilbo had many adventures (the wild was, after all, still the wild), but he was never in any real danger because the orcs were scattered or destroyed, and he was with Beorn and Gandalf most of the way. Write a story about an adventure Bilbo had on his trip home.

Watership Down
Throughout this classic, the rabbits tell stories about their folk hero, El-ahrairah: “The Blessing of El-ahrairah,” “The King’s Lettuce,” “The Trial of El-ahrairah,” “The Black Rabbit of Inle,” and “Rowsby Woof and the Fairy Wogdog.” Write another tale of El-ahrairah.


Abstract Concrete

One of my favorite college-level logic texts is The Art of Reasoning by David Kelley. In the chapter on “Classification” he teaches on genus and species, where he reminds us that the genus of a term is more abstract than the term itself, and the species of a term is more concrete.

Kelley includes an exercise for the students to practice with these concepts. He gives sentences for the students to rewrite, replacing any boldface words with more abstract ones, and any italicized words with more concrete ones. I thought this was a creative approach to teaching the concepts, so I thought I would come up with a few sentences for you to try:

  1. She likes to chitchat on her phone.
  2. The airplane plummeted into a field and crashed .
  3. I studied the sublime planet through an optical device.
  4. The person stuck his head through the bars and got stuck.
  5. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.

Exercises like this can help us to understand the concepts of genus and species while developing creativity in writing. Try making up some of your own!

The Squirrel & the Rabbit: A Cautionary Tale

One late fall in the forest, a squirrel was running back and forth on the tree branches, storing up his nuts in the hollow of an old oak near his home. He was careful to keep his storage place secret so that the nuts would not be stolen, and to make the place deep and high in the strong tree. As he was busy storing the product of his labors, he ran across a rabbit returning from one of his visits to a nearby farmer’s garden. The rabbit had lots of carrots that he kept in some tall grass outside his rabbit hole. The squirrel saw this and called down to the rabbit, “Friend, shouldn’t you put that produce in a safe place? Anyone or anything could take them from you, and all your labor will be in vain!” The rabbit replied, “Thank you for your advice, but I have been keeping my carrots in this grass for a long time, and nothing has ever happened to them.” But the very next day, when the rabbit was once again gone to the garden, a rat came scuttling by, saw all the delicious carrots, and carried off as many as he could to his home in the farmer’s shed. When the rabbit returned and saw the carrots gone from the grassy place, he ran all over in a panic trying to find where they all went, but to no avail. The squirrel came to him and said, “Friend, if you had listened to me and taken a little extra effort to keep the product of your work in a safe place, you would not be enduring this sad loss.” So you also should back up your computer files, for you never know what might happen to make you lose all your work.