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October 25th, 2019
Episode 293 of Tinkered Thinking introduces the concept of Rivalnyms. In short, they are a class of word pairs that have characteristics which locate them in a strange and competitive space between synonyms and antonyms.
One of the most approachable examples is Determined/Stubborn. In the context of Rivalnyms, each word competes for the way we view a person’s efforts. If we approve of their goal, we describe the person as determined in their efforts. If, however, we do not approve of their goal, it’s not a stretch to say that person is stubborn. Each word may encompass a meaning that expands beyond this limited treatment just as the meaning of synonymous words can mean more than they do in the context of being synonymous. As a pair, both stubborn and determined perform well as rivalnyms. In short, both words are rivals for the way we name a situation. The way we settle this rivalry in real-time as we use language ultimately says everything about the speaker.
The concept of rivalnyms gives us a simple framework through which to analyze and ultimately question our own perspective.
This pair of words in particular highlights how the rivalnym concept works.
On the one hand we have
and on the other hand we have. . .
Naturally, the negative and positive tension here is obvious. But on a practical level, these words mean very much the same thing. Both describe the action of a group of people working together to achieve a particular aim. This describes people who are conspiring and this describes people who are cooperating. The difference of course is that people who are conspiring must surely be doing something that is bad, and not in our best interest. Whereas those who cooperate are absolutely doing so for our benefit. Or so we think.
Conspire comes from Latin and means literally ‘breathe together’. Think of the word ‘respiration’. That root ‘spire’ means breath in both instances. The prefix ‘con’ is an assimilated form of ‘com’ which means ‘with’ or ‘together’. Think of the word ‘communal’. In an etymologically literal sense, conspire means ‘communal breathing’. which really takes the sting out of the word. Makes it sound far more…. meditative, passive and contemplative. Of course this carries none of the negativity that the word carries.
Cooperate is even more transparent. It means simply ‘operate together’. And it carries all the positivity that conspire lacks and makes up for in the opposite direction.
The strangeness of this separation between words becomes all the more apparent when we look at usage cases where they are substituted.
Instead of saying: Society is a large instance of cooperation among many individuals,
we could technically say that all of society is a conspiracy. Indeed, it’s true. We’re all conspiring together to create a better life, more or less.
Or we might think of our enemies cooperating behind our back. The positive connotation of the word cooperate puts a similarly strange note in the sentence.
These strange rivalnymic substitutions begin to highlight an important problem with all of language: there is no either/or. The truth of reality always lies somewhere between the two extremes that we often have on hand to express ourselves. Conspiring enemies do exhibit cooperation, and if we turn out to be the true villain in the history books, then those enemies weren’t conspiring at all, they were only cooperating. Think of the sinless ways the founding fathers are described in the United States. In the eyes of England these were conspiring rebels. And in the eyes of the slaves of the time, they were blatant hypocrites. But in the history books they are painted as a brilliant cooperation that triumphed in adverse circumstances.
The words we use have an intrinsic ability to describe not just what we are thinking, but how we are thinking. Rivalnyms are fairly straightforward advertisements for these mechanics.
What’s on offer to learn from rivalnyms is that there’s a space between rivalnyms that we can achieve.
That space is nuance. And it requires the patience and the thoughtfulness to build a larger context, one that fills in the space between cooperation and conspiracy, bridging the two instead of siloing these words in the minds of people who disagree.