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A common notion is that the opposite of “cold” is “warm” and that the opposite of “slow” is “fast”.

Would it be equally correct to say that the opposite of “cold” is “fast”?

How come that most people do seem to have a “natural feeling” for what the opposite of something is? Why is it “common sense” that the opposite of “fast” should be “slow”?

There is a similar post on here:

Can a complete opposite even exist?

But this doesn’t quite answer my question.

I’m asking this question because I’ve watched a physics video on the internet which was more or less unrelated to this topic but somehow “opposites” were mentioned and it was explained that these are just opposites because they were defined this way and aren’t really absolute ones. Unfortunately that’s all I can remember and I can’t find this video anymore therefore I decided to present this question here and I hope someone can get me on that train of thought again.

Thanks.

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  • "Opposites" occur when there is a one-dimensional range of parameter values and the two place at its ends, usually vague. The parameter is speed for fast/slow, temperature for warm/cold, etc. The meanings of adjectives determine what the parameter is, and context determines where the ends are ("fast/slow" is different for humans vs cars, for example, this is where the relativity comes from). The “natural feeling” is just mastery of language, knowing connotations of dictionary words and context cues to surmise the relevant range.
    – Conifold
    Nov 22, 2023 at 5:57
  • Please clarify your specific problem or provide additional details to highlight exactly what you need. As it's currently written, it's hard to tell exactly what you're asking.
    – Meanach
    Nov 22, 2023 at 7:42
  • "fast", "slow", "cold", etc are defined in colloquial language by comparing things to one another. 40km/h is pretty fast for a human being, not so for a car, 80 degres celcius hot for bath water but rather cold for an oven. However, there is an absolute cold (-273 c) in the sense that nothing can be colder.
    – armand
    Nov 22, 2023 at 8:37

1 Answer 1

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The opposite of A is necessarily not A, but not A is not necessarily the opposite of A. For example, both big and industrious are not small, but industrious is not the opposite of small.

Opposites are pairs of words that face each other in the reverse direction in some sense. Some opposites literally refer to opposing directions, such as east and west, up and down. Some refer to opposite directions along some dimension, such as tall and short, hot and cold. Some refer to cases in which there are only two contrasting qualities, such as odd and even (used of numbers). Some refer to qualities such as fairness and unfairness, patient and impatient, industrious and lazy, good and bad, where one implies the reverse of the other in some sense.

In short, opposites usually imply an 'either or'. They are pairs of pigeonholes that are complementary in the sense that if you can't put something in one, it is likely to belong in the other. You cannot say that of slow and warm, for example, but you can of slow and fast. There are some exceptions, notably black and white, which are complementary pigeonholes only in a monochromatic context.

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  • There's also the fact that humans are pretty skilled and consistent at agreeing on conventions. Which explains that if you ask someone "What is the opposite of black?" everyone will think of "white", even if they come from different backgrounds (physicist, optician, painter, digital graphic designer, etc) and even if they are ready to argue against it.
    – Stef
    Nov 22, 2023 at 8:45

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