What’s in a Word?

How we perceive meaning isn’t always Black and White.

I like to think about things. Like this:


taijitsu, the yin-Yang symbol. Pretty simple. Pretty elegant. It’s widespread, but I don’t know how far afield it has travelled, and what people make of it.

On Turtle Island, the predominant way of thinking about Black and White is in terms of clear opposites. It’s in our expressions “there it is in black and white” meaning both black text on a white background, but also clearly evident. Distinct. We think of them as opposites. It might be a feature of the English language, but I speak enough French to see it plays out there as well. Opposites are separate. Like two buildings that stand opposite from each other. On opposite sides of the street. Opposite. Opponent.

If we see Black and White as opponents, then anything we define along this binary becomes oppositional. It we it all over the place. North vs South, God vs Devil, Good vs Evil, Us vs Them. The idea underlying it, is that you have to ally yourself with one side and oppose the other.

Let’s see what the Online Etymological Dictionary has to say:

oppose (v.) late 14c., from Old French oposer “oppose, resist, rival; contradict, state opposing point of view” (12c.), from poser “to place, lay down” (see pose (v.1)), blended with Latin opponere “oppose, object to, set against” (see opponent).

opponent (n.) 1580s, from Latin opponentem (nominative opponens), present participle of opponere “oppose, object to,” literally “set against, set opposite,” from assimilated form of ob “in front of, in the way of” (see ob-) + ponere “to put, set, place” (see position (n.)).

opposite (adj.) late 14c., “placed on the other side of (something),” from Old French oposite “opposite, contrary” (13c.), from Latin oppositus “standing against, opposed, opposite,”

Black and White. Men and Women. Simple dichotomies where there is complex fluidity. Here’s an example:

So back to this yin-Yang. If we change how we look at it, then Black and White are complements, not opposites.


back to Etymonline:

complement (n.) late 14c., “that which completes,” from Old French compliement “accomplishment, fulfillment” (14c., Modern French complément), from Latin complementum “that which fills up or completes,” from complere “fill up” (see complete (adj.))


complete (adj.) late 14c., from Old French complet “full,” or directly from Latin completus, past participle of complere “to fill up, complete the number of (a legion, etc.),” transferred to “fulfill, finish (a task),” from com-, here probably as an intensive prefix (see com-), + plere “to fill”

That’s something different.

I think of Black and White as being extremes, maybe in the same sense as Platonic Ideals, in that they are unattainable. Pure ultimate “white” and pure ultimate “black” do not exist, they are ideas, and ideals. However, the space between them isn’t separated by a rift, as when Black and White play opposites. The space between them is all the possible iterations of Black and White together.

It’s easier to provide an example. If we think of White as pure light, and Black as pure absence of light (or pure darkness if that pans out), then the space between them as opposites is empty, and as complements is the greyscale. Or even the entire visible spectrum. Or even the visible spectrum to every living thing.

Seeing opposites everywhere forces one to make decisions, which in turn act like moral decisions. You can see it everywhere:

White, Heaven, Good, Up, Tall, Beautiful, Civilised
Black, Hell, Evil, Down, Short, Ugly, Brutish

Seeing complements everywhere provides a simple basis by which to explore the world around us. How does light work? Look at it when its present. Now look at it when it’s absen (can’t see anything). Between White and Black lie all the possible colours (even those only seen by mantis shrimp).


What’s in a word?


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