Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Time (or Not) to Take Sides

"Oh Ashley, when will you stop seeing both sides of questions? No one ever gets anywhere seeing both sides."

—Scarlett O'Hara, in Gone With the Wind

It's a common observation today that we live in an increasingly polarized world with regard to ideology. An "us vs. them" mentality pervades political discourse. The narrow victories of Brexit in the UK and Donald Trump in the US are both decried by their opponents as unjust and misbegotten, and both have sharply divided the foremost English-speaking populations of the world into two camps. Each group demonizes the other with satire, invective, and hyperbole. It's convenient, common, and accurate to characterize these opposing camps as sides. It's so common in fact that we no longer think of this usage as metaphoric. But from a lexical and historic point of view, any abstraction characterized as a side is a metaphor, and it may be helpful to investigate how sides came to be things that exist in vehement opposition to each other.

As words go, side is a battle-scarred veteran, a hoary old chestnut. Its written record starts before the year 900, where it is found in the small core of native English vocabulary: words that English (and probably every language) must have because they characterize inescapable parts of human experience. In the case of side, it was (and still is) the go-to word to designate the part of the body that's on the left or the right. From there, side made easy and natural semantic expansion to designate the corresponding parts of other animals, and then the parts of any object or space relative to its center or some other reference location: so we can say the South side, the top side, the flip side, the side that gets afternoon sun.

Side was on the job in English for centuries before it made the metaphoric leap to designate things that have no material existence—in other words, to designate features or aspects of a thing that is itself abstract. With real objects and abstractions both, it's possible to talk about there being many sides (for example, a six-sided polygon, an issue or a disease with many sides). But with some allegiance to its origin, metaphoric side most typically characterizes the parts where there is a natural division in two: you have your father's and your mother's side of the family, the two sides that compete in a sports competition, the two sides of a person's mouth (to characterize when that person seems to be saying contradictory things). Side is most comfortable when it characterizes either part of a binary division.

From a historical perspective, no combination of adjective + side has shown a marked increase or decrease from 1800 to the present day, but one particular collocation is by far the most frequent: the other side. What things do we talk about that we have so many occasions to refer to the other side? Many of them are literal, of course: the other side of the room/river/pancake/world. But the other side is also a convenient and natural way to throw anything into opposition and simply characterize it as alien and unwelcome to this side, or the side you're on: "counter-threats calculated to make the other side back down"; "they interpret any argument on the other side as absurd"; "It's the first time I ever saw the other side of him".

The frequent and somewhat formulaic question "Whose side are you on?" is typically asked in situations where someone's loyalty is in question:

Example sentences from Sketch Engine

Verbs that typically take side as an object also give us a clue to the way in which the mention of a side easily becomes an alienating device: To switch sides is usually to join people you formerly opposed, or to adopt an opinion that is the opposite of the one you formerly held. It's often characterized as a kind of betrayal. To take a side is to declare solidarity with one group or position that probably already stands in opposition to the other side. Side also has some work to do as a verb, with a predictable meaning: "take sides for or against". When you side with someone, you are necessarily declaring opposition to the other side.

Though a side never exists in isolation—the presence of one implies the existence of at least one other—it's curious that the most frequent compound in English with the combining form -sided is one-sided. Obviously, it does not have any literal application and it is nearly always used disparagingly: it co-occurs with simplistic, inaccurate, misguided, partisan, self-serving, flawed, and other uncomplimentary adjectives. It is most frequently modified with embarrassingly, surprisingly, remarkably, blatantly, ridiculously. The suggestion is that it is a failure to acknowledge the existence or merits of another side, which is clearly the upshot of anything one-sided.

Is there a contradiction here? On the one hand, we are often asked or expected to declare our allegiance to a side, or at the very least, identify which of two we are most sympathetic to. On the other, it's viewed as wrong-headed to be one-sided (except, perhaps, by people who would take Scarlett O'Hara as a role model). How is this conflict to be reconciled?

What is lost in our thoroughly entrenched side metaphors is that sides are part of the same thing: just as the two sides of the body form the whole, the two sides of a conflict, argument or controversy are complementary, as well as opposing, and both are necessary to form the whole. Perfectly obvious, of course, when spelled out in this way, but it bears keeping in mind whenever talk of sides pops up. As soon as a characterization of something as a side emerges, it is worth a moment to think about whether it is simply a stealth alienating device.

The contextual behavior of side isn't always bad news: we have side by side, a phrase that turns up mainly in cooperative contexts. There's work side by side, often suggesting dissimilar parties working together, as in "Israeli citizens working side by side with Palestinians" and stand side by side, which when not literal often denotes a gesture of support, as in "public and private sector trade unions standing side by side in the call for education for all." These uses, interestingly, arise directly from a literal side: the side of your body that is next to the side of someone else's. In the physical world, no side is ever so distant or remote from another that nothing joins them. It bears keeping in mind that this should apply to figurative sides as well. They always meet in the middle.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.