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April 1, 2013 8:58 AM   Subscribe

Years ago, my friends and I used to play this game where we'd make sentences with apparent synonyms but negate one of them. For example: "He's honest but he's not truthful." or "He's intelligent but he's not smart." Hearing these sentences would create a sense of difference between the two words that previously wouldn't be visible, or even necessarily exist. We didn't invent this game but I can't remember where we got it. Has anyone heard of it or something like it? Does it have a name? Where does it come from?
posted by Obscure Reference to Writing & Language (8 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I do not know about this as a game specifically. This construction is a type of thought experiment that we used to do in linguistics/semantics classes. The classic line is "The morning star is the evening star" which is to say that both refer to Venus but they are different senses of Venus one of which is Venus that you see in the morning and one of which is Venus which you see at night. And then we read a bunch of Derrida talking about différance. The Wikipedia article is a little thick, but the general idea is that we only understand words through their relationships to other words and that structuring differences/différance is how we best get at what they mean.
Différance is the systematic play of differences, of the traces of differences, of the spacing by means of which elements are related to each other. This spacing is the simultaneously active and passive (the a of différance indicates this indecision as concerns activity and passivity, that which cannot be governed by or distributed between the terms of this opposition) production of the intervals without which the "full" terms would not signify, would not function.
This is sort of coming at your question a little laterally, but I think it's relevant, though doesn't speak to the particular game aspect.
posted by jessamyn at 9:10 AM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

There is a word game that is a little like this called Fanny Dooley. The premise is you create sentences like, "Fanny Dooley likes doors but not windows. Fanny Dooley likes eels but not fish. Fanny Dooley likes books but not novels." The canonical version is the game is (as I've presented it) that she likes only things with double letters, but you can change the rule to play multiple rounds. Of course, this is strictly wordplay, not conceptual, as your version, but perhaps this is where it originated?
posted by Rock Steady at 9:29 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Some of the invisible ink puzzle books used to have a game like this.
posted by TheCavorter at 9:43 AM on April 1, 2013

I didn't know this was a game, but I am known to do this to create fine distinctions. My most useful is probably, "He may be an idiot, but he's not dumb."
posted by cmoj at 9:46 AM on April 1, 2013

I've played a similar game to Rock Steady's. The point of the game is that the game leaders knew the trick, and you went in a circle as people tried to catch on. The leader gets to say whether or not you get to, say, go to the beach.

"I'm going to the beach and I'm going to bring apples" "you can come"
"I'm going to the beach, and I'm going to bring oranges" "sorry, you have to stay behind"

The second rule of the game is that the first rule of the game is secret, and sometimes changing. I could see a kid wandering off thinking he figured out the game, and coming up with your version. The nice thing about your version is that everyone wins. I did not pick up the rules to our game (it was going in alphabetical order. apples, blanket, chest of ice, sunscreen (no? but it's the beach! The beeeeach!))
posted by politikitty at 10:53 AM on April 1, 2013

None of the examples given here are what the OP wants. I was going to mention shiritori until I realized you weren't jumping off each other's sentences.

This doesn't seem like a game in the formal sense of interacting, but rather just playful word play. I'm sure others have played similarly when they were young, I have a vague recollection of joking around with the same examples you gave.

You two probably came up with it spontaneously as many kids do for many of their activities. I don't think there's any indication of anything deeper than that going on here.
posted by SollosQ at 11:55 AM on April 1, 2013

Certain kinds of religions and philosophies utilize self-negating, paradoxical, and/or non-sensical language in order to impart meaning beyond that capable of words, or to galvanize a deeper level of reaction in the listener that is not linguistic. This is stereotypically an Eastern thing in the west. In koans, the Tao Te Ching, the Rubiyat, etc., you can find statements very similar to the ones your game generates.
The sage controls without authority,
And teaches without words;
He lets all things rise and fall,
Nurtures, but does not interfere,
Gives without demanding,
And is content.
In Mystery Men, there is a useless, not very wise leader who generates faux philosophical statements that are very much like yours.

Your game may have originated as either a serious attempt to introduce a kind of non-standard thinking in the players, or as a mocking of eastern mysticism along the lines of Mystery Men.
posted by jsturgill at 12:40 PM on April 1, 2013

It's basically definition through juxtaposition, and jessamyn's reference to differánce is really important. It also reminded me of something I read recently on Niebuhrian irony:

The hidden defect exists in a relational context, as irony is the bringing ‘together of the said and the unsaid … the power of the unsaid to challenge the said is the defining semantic condition of irony’. The reader of an ironic configuration does not need a full explication of this hidden defect – it becomes evident when presented with the juxtaposition.

- Brent Steele, 'Irony, Emotions and Critical Distance' in Millennium Journal of International Relations (Abstract)
posted by knapah at 10:32 PM on April 1, 2013

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