By Amien Essif
After poking around in a thesaurus for a while, I found a mysterious hole in the English language. There is no satisfying antonym for “improve.” At first it seemed like momentary amnesia on my part and I was looking forward to a Roget’s epiphany when, to my surprise, the thesaurus confirmed my suspicion that my native language is inadequate. Couldn’t sleep for days. May even have had a dream in which I told a friend his dog hat disimproved his look, only to awake to an uncomprehending world. So I searched far and wide across the online geek forums and I came up with this lackluster list of antonyms for “improve”:
Of those nine entries, only “worsen” is flexible enough to get the job done. Yoga can improve your posture while writing a dissertation in a water bed will probably worsen it. You may not improve your living room’s look with a resident ventriloquist, but, even in a worst-case scenario, his nocturnal banter won’t damage your living room, and neither will it decrease, diminish, harm, hurt, injure or weaken it’s prevailing feng shui.
So “worsen” it is. But what a limp word. “Improvement” has the thrust of the American dream behind it, and for what it’s worth, every time I pronounce it, I think of dad on a ladder doing something to the white vinyl siding on the family home, though what he is doing is kind of blurry. Maybe he’s actually worsening it.
The word “improvement” wears protestant work-pants. “Worsen” is practically nude as far as images. But on the other hand, “damage,” “harm,” “injure,” and “hurt” are fighting words.
Other problems: “Deteriorate,” like some other words in the list, implies a natural process of entropy, which “improve” is rarely meant to mean. The dichotomy works best for giant and abstract things like “the economy” or “conditions” (“conditions improved/deteriorated in Germany”) but not so much for tangible things. If you say your left leg is improving while your right leg is deteriorating, most people would stop breathing through their nose.
Impair is a good one, and one forum I read unofficially declared this one a winner. At least when talking about projects and work and things that are processes with an understood goal. But obviously it has its limitations.
Then there’s the problem of register. There is actually a whole list of versatile words and phrases that fill every one of “improve”s anti-shoes as far as connotation, but they crap out as far as register. I’m talking about “messing things up” and all the variations on “mess,” “muck,” “screw,” “blow,” and “f–k” things up. One of the delivery guy’s at the pizza place where I work suggested another good antonym: “shitting in the punch bowl.” You can also screw the pooch, dick things up, bite the big one, or crap out. But not in polite company.
Now here’s the real question: What the hell is my point?
The point is that the strange absence of a universal antonym for “improve” goes far beyond practicability. I don’t think it’s an oversight on the part of the English language that “improvement” does not find its perfect opposite in a word like “disimprovement.” There is no perfect opposite. Language evolves from reality, or at least our understanding of reality, so the conclusion we should draw is that either we don’t understand the relationship between things getting better or worse; or that the very idea of things getting better or worse is an illusion with diminishing credibility.
Take, for example, the fact that the most difficult meaning of “improvement” to replace is the sense in which a person takes action to reform a thing or a process. Picture your dad improving your house. There’s no graceful opposite for home improvement. Many of the words on the list of antonyms describe either a natural process (deteriorate), a passive process (diminish), or an intentionally destructive process (harm), but not one encompasses all three.
So choosing an antonym for “improve” forces you to confront the distinction between an accident, an act of malice, or an unavoidable consequence of the universe tending toward destruction.
This is why I think that the mysterious case of the missing antonym suggests that we’re uneasy about our role in the universe. Like the proverbial Inuit with fifty words for snow, we evidently understand far more about destruction and chaos than we do about this thing we call “improvement” which is really just as fragmented as its anti-matter. We create “civilized” things and commit “constructive” acts with the alibi of “improving” the universe when, really, all we’ve got is an over-simplified, value-loaded concept whose unpacked meanings, like their contradiction, are motley, myriad, and many. If you start to think of it this way, “improve” isn’t quite the bulls-eye word we thought it was, but rather a misleading epithet for a concept with unfathomed plurality.
That’s how the English language treats “improvement”–as a concept we should be able to agree on. We don’t, of course, but the disagreement is cast as a moral problem. Islamic fundamentalists are set on destroying America, the story goes, because their religion calls for blood–not because our Western idea of improvement (which includes very real acts of destruction) is wrecking the order they had established over a millennium.
Improvement, as it stands, is one-directional while chaos moves in from all sides. It’s an Us-versus-Them interpretation of how things work, and it jibes with our very own theory of entropy, a calculation of the universe that seems more like an excuse for maintaining the status quo than an Absolute Truth. Entropy is a National Terror Alert writ large–risk of chaos replacing order is high today–and I doubt it could have come from any other culture’s mathematicians.
Well, I, for one, don’t believe the universe is tending toward chaos. I think the theory of entropy is a problem of limited perspective, limited language, or maybe just the result of a typo (like the Excel muck-up that “justified global austerity“). And I flatter myself—and other students of language—to think that it might not be the mathematician’s job to find the error.