The Game of Antonyms

Towards the end of one of my favourite books, No Longer Human, the protagonist Yozo plays a game with his fiancé and his best friend. The rules of the game are pretty straightforward. Well there is actually one rule technically, but despite that it is a very trying experience. There are no winners, nor losers, there are only participants. You can play it on a second date (don’t try it on a first one, trust me), and you can even play it alone. The game is called the “Game of Antonyms”, and the purpose is, given a word, to find the antonym, or the opposite of it. As Dazai writes:

I had invented one other game of a rather similar character, a guessing

game of antonyms. The antonym of black is white. But the antonym of

white is red. The antonym of red is black.

And later on:

Still no good. The antonym of flower . . . you’re supposed to name the

thing in the world which is least like a flower.

At first glance this game seems simplistic and a rather easy—no different than some spelling Bee. But if you ever attempt to truly play it, you will find its hidden depth and how much introspection and thought is required to come up with an answer. Of all the things I found fascinating about this book, this particular little chapter struck me as its most interesting part. It’s a game that really encourages creativity, careful thought, and discussion.

However, above all, it challenges you to really reevaluate your understanding of words and the world as a whole. I know this is a bit of a bold claim to make, but trust me as you understand more about the game you will see why that is the case. Once you begin playing the game you will quickly find yourself rejecting dictionary definitions of commonly accepted antonyms of some words.

For the purpose of this essay I will group all words into three groups. Group 1 are words with clearly defined antonyms. Positive and negative, True and False. These are often mathematical terminologies and one is defined as the negation of the other. Group 2 are words for which some antonym is a Google away, however as one begins to think about it more and tries to reason about the concepts behind the words, it becomes clear that a more sophisticated antonym needs to be found. And group 3 are words which one has not even considered they can have an antonym. Try to think what would be the opposite of flower. In this essay I will give you three examples of how to play this game with some words of group 2, and I hope after all this you will feel drawn to try to play yourself.

The first concept we will try to find an antonym for is ‘crime’. Thesaurus would suggest to us obedience, goodness, kindness or behaviour, which can be grouped up into LAWNESS and VIRTUE. And certainly ORDER seems like a good candidate for an antonym. I mean intuitively it makes sense that where there is no law and order there is crime, and vice versa.

Yozo, from the book, asks his friend the same thing. What is the antonym of crime.

“The law, of course,” Horiki answered flatly.

“Crime belongs in a different category.”

Imagine saying that the law was the antonym of crime! But perhaps

everybody in “society” can go on living in self-satisfaction, thanks to just

such simple concepts. They think that crime hatches where there are no


“Well, in that case what would it be? God?”

“Let’s not dispose of the problem so lightly. Let’s think about it a bit

more together. Isn’t it an interesting theme? I feel you can tell everything

about a man just from his answer to this one question.”

“You can’t be serious. The antonym of crime is virtue. A virtuous

citizen. In short, someone like myself.”

“Let’s not joke. Virtue is the antonym of vice, not of crime.”

“Are vice and crime different?”

“They are, I think. Virtue and vice are concepts invented by human

beings, words for a morality which human beings arbitrarily devised.”

Finally I muttered almost to myself, “Actions punishable by jail

sentences are not the only crimes. If we knew the antonym of crime, I think

we would know its true nature. God . . . salvation . . . love . . . light. But for

God there is the antonym Satan, for salvation there is perdition, for love

there is hate, for light there is darkness, for good, evil. Crime and prayer?

Crime and repentance? Crime and confession? Crime and . . . no, they’re all

synonymous. What is the opposite of crime?”

Crime and punishment. Dostoievski. These words grazed over a corner

of my mind, startling me. Just supposing Dostoievski ranged ‘crime’ and

‘punishment’ side by side not as synonyms but as antonyms. Crime and

punishment—absolutely incompatible ideas, irreconcilable as oil and water.

I felt I was beginning to understand what lay at the bottom of the scum-

covered, turbid pond, that chaos of Dostoievski’s mind…

This is, of course, the reasoning Dazai provides in his book. One is free to disagree. There are no right answers in this game. Only wrong ones. And while I would love to hear your reasoning too, this format of a monologue makes me unable to. Thus you will be now forced to read my own arrogant opinion.

Virtue is not the opposite of crime. Crimes do not necessarily correlate with vices. I think the most obvious examples for this would be Jesus. A virtuous man who was yet accused of a crime. And law and order do not negate crime. In fact, crime exists only inside the law. If no laws exist, then no crimes can exist. Order would seem to be a sound antonym, but the antonym of order is chaos. And chaos does not mean crime, nor does crime mean chaos. Hence why organised crime exists. No… punishment it is. Punishment negates crime. Punishment exists as the ultimate antonym to crime. Punishment does not need to be lawful, does not need to be virtuous, does not need to be orderly. It merely exists to negate crime. Now here it is worth pointing out that the antonym of an antonym does not need to be the same concept in this game. So the antonym of punishment does not need to be crime, although it could be. I hope this example got you hooked, because we are not taking the training wheels off and diving even deeper.

While I do agree with Dazai’s reasoning about crime’s antonym, there is a little part in the passage that grinds my gears. Mainly his statement that the antonym of love is hate… And now I would like to investigate with you.. What would be the antonym of love.

A google search would tell me that the antonym of love to be hatred. And while thesaurus provides roughly the same answers, it also gives apathy. So let’s go through them one by one. I think most people’s instinctive response would indeed be hate. We seem to be conditioned from a young age that that is the proper antonym. You either hate someone or you love them. But I think people who accept this as given have never experienced strong love. Never felt those flutters in the stomach that quickly turn to sharp knives. How much you can hate your partner, how much you can hate an abusive parent, and yet how much you can love them. You can hate someone from too much love. Hate and love are not antonyms of emotions. They are both very passionate, draw you to the other person, and make you more aware of their actions. Some studies have also shown that there is an overlap in brain activity between hatred and love. No. Hate is not the antonym of love. There are those you hate, those whom you love… and those few who make you feel both. But there is also a fourth group, one that we easily have neglected.

Elie Wiesel famously said, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference”. Also another great authour with an incredible semi-autobiographic book about his experience through the Holocaust—“The Night”. His sentiment can indeed hold. These two emotions are hard to coexist about the same person at the same time. And this seems to be the second most popular response I have heard from people. But I don’t think indifference is the antonym of love. No… Indifference, or apathy, is the antonym of feelings as a whole. Apathy itself means without feeling. It would be hard for hatred and indifference to coexist too. Indeed indifference does negate love, not because it is love, but because it is a feeling. We need to go even deeper.

Personally, I believe the antonym of love to be… disgust. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that on the emotion wheel they are placed almost completely opposite from each other. There is no sensation more further removed from love. I have yet to hear someone describe the person they love as “disgusting”. Maybe in an attempt to deny it to themselves, but that would merely show a subconscious awareness that disgust is the opposite of love. Two emotions that cannot coexist about the same person at the same time. Maybe about the situation the two people are in, but never about the other person. Love draws you towards the other person. Disgust makes you want to distance yourself from them. To avoid interactions. Here I would like to bring up a slang word I became recently aware of. The Ick. Urban dictionary defines it as: “You could be on the chirpse with a guy or girl, everything seems to be going fine.. you THINK you like them but then you suddenly catch ‘The Ick’. From then on you can’t look at the person in the same way, you just progressively get more and more turned off by them, weirdly & maybe for no reason in particular grossed out by them.”

And if you google it you will see a lot of videos of white women talking about how they got the ick. Basically the moment when they stopped liking the person and started feeling repulsed by them. Disgust as the negation of love. And yes using white women as my source is a bit dubious, but still I will maintain this to be a great example of how people themselves are somewhat aware what the antonym of love is on a more primal level. To further provide evidence to my point, a 2015 study found negative correlation between disgust and umm.. Desire for making love (“Disgust versus Lust: Exploring the Interactions of Disgust and Fear with Sexual Arousal in Women”). And yes, I am aware that not all love is sexual, but still a subset of love is the sexual kind.

I know I am repeating myself, but it is important to remember that there is no correct answer. You are free to disagree. What matters is the reasoning one gives for their opinion. And the introspection this sends them on.

To finish off I want to end with my favourite prompt for this game. “What is the antonym of Life”. I have discussed this one with a lot of friends and I always hear the most interesting responses. Life is of course an important concept. We are experiencing it right now. What would be the furthest thing from it?

As you probably have become aware by now, it doubtfully is death. Death is merely the term used to denote the end of a life. You wouldn’t call the antonym of a movie its ending. The antonym of a day is not sunset. The ending is somewhat part of the process, unwanted as it may be. No, death exists within life.

I would love to tell you all the interesting answers I have heard and the reasoning people gave for them, but that would be a writing of its own.

The antonym of life is… Stone. Life is adapting, changing, moving, vivid, animated. A stone is a stone. Stationary by itself. Hard to change. Inanimate. Stones have been here long before us. And they will be here long after we are gone. Life cannot be a stone. And a stone cannot be alive (even if fiction would wish it to be otherwise). A forest is full of life, brimming with movement, ever adapting, ever growing. A city made of stone is static, apart from the people it is dead, lifeless, motionless. We are the life support of our cities. The only thing breathing life into them. Life can be sinful, virtuous, sorrowful, joyous. A stone is a stone. It is pure in that sense maybe. There is nothing to it and there is nothing more that it needs to be. Maybe it is a bit ironic that the first murder, the first death in the Bible occurs… with a stone. Stone as the antonym of life.

Personally, I love the poet Atanas Dalchev. And one of his poems, titled Stone, does state roughly the same thing. Stone as the opposite of life. I found it fascinating that a hundred years before me, before Osamu Dazai had even become known, Dalchev had already pondered on what the opposite of life is.

And to provide even more evidence, we compare the more dull people with statues (which are primarily associated with stone). It is a fascinating thing to think about. Instead of pondering what we are, what life is, what the meaning of life is, perhaps it will help us to consider what is the opposite of life. What is so far removed from us, animated living beings, that it is the antonym? Perhaps it may help to better understand ourselves.