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Complicated cultural opposites

December 17, 2010

What constitutes a pair of opposites is not always black and white. Since living in Israel, I’ve learned that meat is the opposite of dairy, as the two generally do not (or at least aren’t supposed to) coexist. In my mind, meat and dairy have plenty in common, as they are both edible, depending on who’s hungry, and both come from animals. Contrasting them as opposites seems like a very foreign idea, but in Israel where the majority of people keep kosher to some degree at least some of the time, it’s a sensible cultural association.

Saltwater and freshwater is another pair of opposites that always catches me off guard, though it shouldn’t given that Hebrew follows the same pattern as many other languages. In Hebrew, like in French and I assume most other European languages, the pair is contrasted as salty and sweet: מים מלוחים (ma’im meluchim, saltwater) and מים מתוקים (ma’im metukim, sweet water). To me, sweet water means nothing other than the name of a bar in just about every city I’ve ever been to.

青リンゴ / blue apple cultural color identity crisisWhen in Japan, I learned that the opposite of a red light is not a green light, but rather a blue one. The color 青 (ao) is mostly blue but often includes shades of green too. For example, green apples are called blue apples (青リンゴ, ao ringo), the exact same color used to describe blue skies (青空, ao zora). The line between green and blue is foggy, or at least it used to be, though there is a word for green these days that is used when deemed appropriate: 緑 (midori). This term is more familiar to Americans as a bright green liquor that pairs well with sour.

I was trying to think of some unique American or English-language concepts of what constitutes a pair of opposite terms but nothing came to mind. Anyone have ideas?

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