Aesthetic Mixtures in Popular Expressions

A list of common English phrases which are contradictory mixtures in that they reference a sequence of simple, fundamental perceptual opposites

This story is a list of every way the relatively exciting qualities hot, fluid, disorder, bright, dynamic, up and out and their opposites cold, solid, order, dark, static, down and in can be arranged in pairs across categories of excitement as contradictory, mixed or complex perceptual sequences. Similarly structured, popular, otherwise nonsensical English phrases are listed in parentheses along with the current count of phrases representing each mixture.

The expressions are most likely reflections of biases favoring them over combinations of references to qualities in the same mental category. We like expressions that allude to one hot thing and one cold thing a little better than those alluding to two hot things or two cold things, for instance, or up and down instead of up twice or down twice.

The expressions are nonsensical. The literal meaning they carry is disconnected almost completely from our interpretation. Where they originated, when it’s possible to determine, doesn’t tell us anything about their structure or why they’re popular. We choose to use them instead of less complex word sequences and concepts which would more easily and reasonably mean the same thing.

Some of the phrases can be listed next to more than one pair of qualities. “When Hell freezes over” is filed under hot — solid/solid — hot, but Hell has more qualities than heat, such as downwardness and brightness, and freezing is not only solid but cold. Not everyone will agree about whether or not or how closely the references are related to the qualities as suggested. Mixtures of opposites occurring in one temporal order are not distinguished from those in the other. So hot — cold isn’t different from cold — hot, and so on. Each mixture is treated equivalently and shown in both directions.

Most importantly, it’s evident from the list below that any quality on the more exciting side can be paired with any quality on the less exciting side to create a contradiction we find interesting, rather than only those we can observe to occur as opposites in the outside world, which are marked with an asterisk (*). For example, we like language referring to fluidity and inwardness, or solidity and outwardness, a little better than upward fluidity or inward solidness, or still brightness and dynamic darkness more than dark stillness or dynamic brightness, which drives a process of aesthetic selection. Every language should have similarly contradictory expressions made out of references to the same qualities:

Hot — cold/cold — hot (*3: waxing hot and cold, hot and cold flashes, cold hands warm heart); hot — solid/solid — hot (11: when Hell freezes over, fire and brimstone, hot stuff, hot shit, burn your bridges, burn to the ground, hot off the grill, scorched earth, firewall, dumpster fire, hot rod); hot — order/order — hot (1: hot box); hot — dark/dark — hot (1: the heat of the night); hot — static/static — hot (1: dead heat); hot — down/down — hot (3: fire down below, under fire, drop it like it’s hot); hot — in/in — hot (15: hellhole, burning a hole in your pocket, hot pocket, to hell in a hand basket, hot take, take the heat, packing heat, catch heat, catch hell, in heat, coming in hot, holy hell, depths of hell, pits of hell, caught in the crossfire); fluid — cold/cold — fluid (4: wind chill, cold spell, in cold blood, a cold shower); fluid — solid/solid — fluid (*15: sweating bullets, bleed dry, blood from a stone, blow hard, wet your beak, wet your whistle, bread and butter, bell weather, hard liquor, ghost town, flood gates, a watched pot never boils, building castles in the air, city slicker, chain smoker, heavy smoker); fluid — order/order — fluid (3: bloodline, lick into shape, paint yourself into a corner); fluid — dark/dark — fluid (7: midnight oil, blue wave, blue blood, dark cloud on the horizon, nothing but blue skies ahead, blue sky thinking, out of the clear blue sky); fluid — static/static — fluid (7: paint a picture, cry yourself to sleep, dead in the water, Dead Sea, stay afloat, lazy river, god rest your soul); fluid — down/down — fluid (13: teardrop, blow me down, rain down, trickle down, watered down, what it boils down to, breathing down my neck, melt down, low blow, low float, plant a flag, under the weather, sink or swim); fluid — in/in — fluid (31: genie in a bottle, it’s in your blood, butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, watering hole, sapsucker, honey trap, blood and guts, take a deep breath, take a breather, hold water, catch air, catch a wave, it comes in waves, into thin air, mouth watering, holy spirit, holy ghost, holy smokes, holy water, catch my drift, catch wind of, wind bag, sucking wind, pipe dream, get smoked, put that in your pipe and smoke it, gathering clouds, my cup of tea, heart and soul, hunger is the best sauce, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube); disorder — cold/cold — disorder (1: crack open a cold one); disorder — solid/solid — disorder (17: break new ground, break bread, breaking up is hard to do, crackpot, wild thing, crazy shit, like a wrecking ball, bust a nut, ground breaking, earth shattering, nut cracker, hard nut to crack, diamond in the rough, train wreck, stone cold crazy, the dam has broken, when the shit hits the fan); disorder — order/order — disorder (*7: mix and match, rough around the edges, tangled web, blockbuster, method to the madness, break even, deterministic chaos); disorder — dark/dark — disorder (1: throwing shade); disorder — static/static — disorder (2: death spiral, a disaster waiting to happen); disorder — down/down — disorder (7: crack down, break down, break it down, downward spiral, drop kick, drop a bombshell, down and dirty); disorder — in/in — disorder (10: mixed bag, cracker barrel, crazy drawer, foul mouth, dirt bag, belly flop, take a tumble, in the wild, getting sloppy, catch you on the flip side); bright — cold/cold — bright (1: cold light of day); bright — solid/solid — bright (6: shining city on a hill, starship, flash in the pan, all that glitters is not gold, rock star, hitch your wagon to a star); bright — order/order — bright (2: when the stars align, draw a red line); bright — dark/dark — bright (*4: it’s better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, blue light special, Black Friday, Blue Monday); bright — static/static — bright (1: seize the day); bright — down/down — bright (2: yellow bellied, under the sun, farewell?); bright — in/in — bright (6: lightning in a bottle, yellow bellied, bleeding heart, light up the room, catch some rays, take lightly); dynamic — cold/cold — dynamic (4: play it cool, pure as the driven snow, cold brew, cool your jets); dynamic — solid/solid — dynamic (19: move mountains, roll the dice, drive a hard bargain, turn on a dime, drive me nuts, shaky ground, start shit, go to the end of the earth, play hard ball, throw a wrench into the works, time to shift gears, rocky start, hard and fast rule, landslide, leave no stone unturned, the city that never sleeps, if the tables were turned, hit the ground running, dry run); dynamic — order/order — dynamic (6: play it straight, steer clear, smooth move, level playing field, go back to square one, rite of passage); dynamic — dark/dark — dynamic (4: jet black, night crawler, blue streak, that got dark fast); dynamic — static/static — dynamic (*16: going steady, fast asleep, jet lag, walking dead, play dead, spinning in the grave, hurry up and wait, the calm before the storm, unmoved mover, death march, dead man walking, slow your roll, still life, ready steady go, slow and steady wins the race, going nowhere fast); dynamic — down/down — dynamic (11: free falling, the rundown, swing low, turn it down, running low, mosey on over, down play, play it down, race to the bottom, winding down, fell swoop); dynamic — in/in — dynamic (16: fools rush in, motor mouth, run your mouth, going all in, hyper focused, push the envelope, turn in, rock the boat, butterflies in the stomach, pull a fast one, catch on fast, eaten alive, hold on for dear life, in a tizzy, let’s get started, take the money and run); up — cold/cold — up (1: freeze up); up — solid/solid — up (12: the high ground, heaven on earth, mind over matter, stiff upper lip, upper crust, hard up, bone up, chalk it up to, raise the bar, pennies from heaven, my mind is made up, you can’t make this stuff up); up — order/order — up (12: a tall order, upright, above the law, fly straight, heads up, measure up, straight as the crow flies, overrule, straight up, straighten up, shape up, clean up, a match made in heaven); up — dark/dark — up, (3: tall dark and handsome, fly by night, up all night, blacktop); up — static/static — up (9: over my dead body, waiting in the wings, slow on the uptake, stay up, hold up, wouldn’t lose sleep over, sleep over, dead cat bounce, rest up); up — down/down — up (*6: jumping up and down, understanding, dropping like flies, it’s a rollercoaster, upside down, top down); up — in/in — up (17: top secret, right up your alley, heaven’s gate, over a barrel, up your sleeve, up for grabs, eat it up, keep it up, keep up the good work, suck up, fed up, pull up, wrap it up, suck it up, choked up, hold up, get it up, catch up, caught up); out — cold/cold — out (1: chill out); out — solid/solid — out (12: open architecture, out of the woodwork, out of the woods, give a shit, freeze out, groundswell, rock out, rocks off, get the lead out, land and expand, a stones throw); out — order/order — out (8: out of sorts, off the grid, go figure, flat out, rule out, straight shooter, square off, squared away); out — dark/dark — out (3: out of the blue, shot in the dark, black out); out — static/static — out (4: pulling out all the stops, lay away, dead and gone, wait it out); out — down/down — out (4: free fall, out of your depth, hang out, drop out); out — in/in — out (*14: go suck an egg, cockpit, cast a wide net, the ins and outs of, give in, eat your heart out, pan out, take off, center of the universe, catch up, inside out, take a hike, get out the vote, details emerge, press on).

Longer Sequences

Sequences of three or more qualities with at least one reference to something from an opposite category can have a nonzero hypothetical excitement level. In the list below phrases are followed by qualities they supposedly represent, in parentheses, with references related to more than one quality accounted for by a slash. Excitement balances, based on the sum of distinct references in the phrase to more (plus one) and less (minus one) exciting qualities, should give some idea of how agreeable we find the expression, with zero degrees of excitement being most agreeable and deviations from zero in either direction tending to be less agreeable. Longer mixed sequences, in no particular order, include the popular phrases:

Burning the midnight oil (hot/bright — dark — fluid), day in and day out (bright — in — bright — out=1–1+1–1=0), blood runs cold (fluid — dynamic — cold=1), rain hellfire down (fluid/down — hot/bright/fluid/up — down=3), stir up shit (dynamic — up — solid=1), go down swinging (dynamic — down — dynamic=1), thrown under the bus (dynamic — down — solid/in=-2), playing hard to get (dynamic — solid — in=-1), turn that frown upside down (dynamic — up — down=1), jump right in (up — order — in=-1), still waters run deep, (static — fluid — dynamic — down=0), go down a storm (dynamic — down — fluid=1), land you in hot water (solid — in — hot — fluid=0), strike when the iron is hot (disorder — solid — heat=1), pour your heart out (fluid — in — out=1), what goes up must come down(dynamic — up — down=1), live fast die young (dynamic — dynamic — static=1), suck the life out of (in — dynamic — out=1), a dark cloud hanging over (dark — fluid — down — up=0) and a rising tide lifts all boats (up — fluid — up — solid/container=1), hanging over your head (down — up — round=-1), iron out the wrinkles (solid — out — disorder=1), “dragged kicking and screaming” (down/dynamic — dynamic — high-pitch=2), “stop, drop and roll” (static — down — dynamic=-1), and it’s eating me up inside (in — up — in=-1).

Life in terms of the nonliving. Universal animal preferences for mixtures of simple, more and less exciting psychological opposites.

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