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Why don't certain antonym pairs get rearranged often? We have little and big, small and large, but almost never hear little and large.

Another example: weak and strong, soft and tough, but never weak and tough.

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    I'm not enough of a semanticist to feel confident posting this as an answer, but I don't think these synonyms are as exact as you make them sound. "Faulty" and "bad" don't mean the same thing, nor do "arrive" and "enter": you don't arrive a building, and I don't call my cat faulty when she misbehaves.
    – Draconis
    Aug 4 at 22:07
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    Are you asking why some words are used more than others that have almost the same meaning? There are always variations, is the answer; they're what keep language evolution working. Look at wildflowers in the wild and notice how different each one is. That's like individual word use by individual speakers; it varies all over the lot, over the centuries.
    – jlawler
    Aug 5 at 2:03
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    Little and Large was a famous British comedic double-act. So maybe the phrase is commoner in some places than others. (I'm not sure there's a single answer to this question: factors such as sounding pleasing, different shades of meaning, habit/set phrases, will all play a role.)
    – Stuart F
    Aug 5 at 10:30
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    @StuartF: Maybe the surprising element in "little and large" is part of the commedy of that British duo. Aug 8 at 14:04
  • "Big and small" is also very common.
    – cmw
    Aug 9 at 11:57

2 Answers 2

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Presumably because those pairs of synonyms -- little/small, strong/tough etc. -- actually differ somewhat in semantics and usage.

This is easy to see with the second example: not everything strong is tough and not everything weak is soft, nor vice versa.

a strong/?tough argument
a tough/?strong steak
a weak/?soft correlation
the soft/?weak bigotry of low expectations

With the first example the denotations seem to overlap more, but little and big have an emotive association that small and large lack.

You big/?large palooka!
What a cute little/?small kitten!

I would guess that little and big tend to be acquired earlier by children, too, though I don't have any data on this.

So, in terms of meaning and usage, little is a more exact antonym of big than small is, and similarly for the other examples, which is presumably why they remain aligned in speakers' minds.

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This is a good demonstration of conventionalisation in natural language. The conventionalisation goes so far, the even the order of the antonyms tend to be fixed, as in black and white or good and evil. The conventionalisation reduces the surprisal of the antonym phrase and eases its processing in the human brain. Any derivation from that would be marked in linguistic terminology.

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    When I first saw Willy Russell's stage play Shirley Valentine, I was surprised that she referred to a meal of "chips and egg". To me it had always been "egg and chips", and "chips and egg" sounded wrong.
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 8 at 14:35

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