A single word which means "negatively defined"?
April 7, 2006 10:07 AM   Subscribe

Is there a single word which means "negatively defined" (or "defined by its opposite" or "defined by not being other things" or "defined by the absence of something")? In English if you can manage (I cannot think of one), but maybe in another language? German perhaps?
posted by unknowncommand to Writing & Language (22 answers total)
"Defined by not being other things" is, in medicine, a diagnosis of exclusion. Unfortunately that's a set phrase, rather than one word.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:13 AM on April 7, 2006

Maybe antithesis?
posted by logicpunk at 10:15 AM on April 7, 2006

posted by Alt F4 at 10:41 AM on April 7, 2006

When you have a pair of words that describe opposite or mutually exclusive sets or conditions, the word pairs involved are called antonyms. Fair/unfair, hot/cold, American/un-American, light/dark, etc. In each case, one word is, or can be, defined by not being the other, by the absence of the other, or by being the opposite of the other.
posted by beagle at 10:42 AM on April 7, 2006

This probably won't be particularly helpful, but in law there is a principle of construction that says that the exclusion of one thing implies the existence of the opposite (or vice versa). The Latin phrase for this principle is "expressio unius est exlusio alterius".
posted by pardonyou? at 10:52 AM on April 7, 2006

in grad school we used the unwieldy phrase "constituting other" for what it sounds like you're talking about. Simple examples are "non-males" or "non-whites."
posted by small_ruminant at 10:57 AM on April 7, 2006

Dichotomous/dichotomy is close.
posted by CaptApollo at 10:58 AM on April 7, 2006


Defined as "not a eukaryote". Characteristics are generally lack of specific structures found in eukaryotes (nucleus, for example). It's not your answer, but it's a specific example of what you mean: Maybe can help someone else come up with the word you are looking for.

It isn't an antonym, it isn't the opposite, it's just a category defined as "not the other". If you find the word, I want to know it.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:58 AM on April 7, 2006

now that I consider, I think the constituting Others in my examples would be "male" and "white," so it won't do you any good. Sorry.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:02 AM on April 7, 2006

Contrary? "An object, fact, or quality that is the very opposite of something else"

Converse? "A thing or action which is the exact opposite of another"
posted by aneel at 11:13 AM on April 7, 2006

Best answer: The rhetorical figure apophasis, adj. apophatic.

I hear the word mostly used in the context of apophatic theology, popular in medieval times and among certain mystic schools. The subject of theology (God) is taken as a given, and which is so different from all other things that we can only describe it in terms of what it is not. For example, God is so Good, whatever Goodness we may conceive of falls so short of the subject that it is bad in comparison.

The general rhetorical figure does not necessarily imply all that stuff, however.
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:18 AM on April 7, 2006

I'm not sure if this is what you're looking for, but the phoneme 'r' is defined as not being any other phoneme.
posted by nakedsushi at 11:46 AM on April 7, 2006

Response by poster: Yeah, to clarify, I'm not looking for a word that means "opposite", but more like what small_ruminant and caution live frogs are talking about. I was kind of hoping there would be some insane German phrase-word (that-which-is-defined-by-its-lack-of-being-another, or the like). I'm happy with all these other phrase examples though. They are interesting cross-disciplinary parallels.
posted by unknowncommand at 11:49 AM on April 7, 2006

Response by poster: exactly, nakedsushi, so if you had to come up with a one word adjective/noun to describe/name the phoneme 'r' in that capacity, what would it be?
posted by unknowncommand at 11:51 AM on April 7, 2006

sonofsiam got the word I was grasping for--apophasis. I confess I did a double take when he mentioned "I hear the word mostly used..." -- I have never heard the word used at all! But I've seen it written down, and I think this is the best candidate.
posted by adamrice at 12:03 PM on April 7, 2006

Response by poster: Oh! Or maybe sonofsamiam has it (sorry, just now read the link). It's close at least.
posted by unknowncommand at 12:10 PM on April 7, 2006

It's not exactly what you're looking for but it might lead to the right answer. I dunno. Maybe not. It's just a cool word, ok!?.

posted by lyam at 12:22 PM on April 7, 2006

The opposite of apophatic, "attained through negation," by the way, is cataphatic, "attained through affirmation."
posted by Mo Nickels at 12:40 PM on April 7, 2006

depending on the context and which of your original meanings you were working around ("negatively defined," "defined by its opposite," etc.) you might also use:

(a) différance (the French post-structuralist version)

(b) contradistinction

(c) lacuna (again, French post-structuralism)

(d) deduction (as in subtractive reasoning)
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:09 PM on April 7, 2006

Litotes? "[U]nderstatement, for intensification, by denying the contrary of the thing being affirmed." I guess that's a property of the description rather than the thing being described, though.
posted by letourneau at 3:26 PM on April 7, 2006

"by default"
posted by rob511 at 3:38 PM on April 7, 2006

I thought of différance as well.
posted by youarenothere at 3:26 PM on April 8, 2006

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