All Downhill the Rest of the Way

Over breakfast this morning, I was telling my daughter about an essay I’m writing. “I’ve written the sad part,” I said, “so it’s all downhill the rest of the way.” She was curious about my use of “downhill.”

“Isn’t that negative?” she asked.

“I suppose it can be.” After all, I explained, going downhill is easier than going uphill, but for many people, “down” has negative connotations. (Think: Hell.) The Oxford English Dictionary states that the word can be used figuratively as well as literally, but I wasn’t able to find a definition with positive connotations.  The word does, however, appear on some lists of contranyms (or auto-antonyms or Janus words), words that possess two opposite meanings. Recently, in the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Lingua Franca blog, Anne Curzan speculates on whether there’s a difference between “going downhill” and “all downhill from here/there” and reminds us of the importance of context.

Despite some people’s  inclination to label “downhill” a contranym (or an auto-antonym or a Janus word), Curzan points out that this label is not quite accurate; after all, “easy” and “bad” are not quite opposites. For now, if I need a label, I’ll refer to “downhill” as “one of those interesting linguistic things.”

Published in: on December 23, 2015 at 3:22 am  Leave a Comment  
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