Yesterday, as part of an e-mail back-and-forth originally set in motion by this column’s recent posting about alegre, a friend introduced me to the word contrapposto. It’s an Italian art term, but other languages now use it as well. In painting or sculpture, contrapposto refers to a situation in which putting most of the weight of a person’s body on one leg causes the head and shoulders to face in a direction different from that of the hips and legs. That sort of ‘twist’ produces a more dynamic figure than one in which a person’s entire body is aligned the same way. We don’t have trouble seeing that contra means ‘against’ or, to use the French-derived English cognate, ‘counter,’ and that Italian posto corresponds to Spanish puesto ‘placed.’ Etymologically, then, contrapposto tells us that the upper and lower parts of a person’s body are placed in contrary positions.
The Spanish cognate of contrapposto is contrapuesto, the past participle of contraponer, which means ‘to put one thing against another,’ whether to oppose the other thing or to compare the two. For example, in 1847, in Gramática de la lengua castellana, Vicente Salvá y Perez pointed out that bien “se contrapone en su sentido ordinario al adverbio mal; pero varía notablemente en razón de los antecedentes y consiguientes del discurso.”
English has the etymologically equivalent verb counterpose, which dictionary.com defines as ‘to offer or place in opposition, response, or contrast.’ As an example of usage, take this passage from the article “Feats of Insects,” originally published in Excelsior magazine, and reprinted in the 1859 volume of Friends’ Intelligencer:
“Let us look at the power of insects exercised in the act of flying. The house-flies—Musca domestica—that wheel and play beneath the ceiling for hours together, ordinarily move at the rate of about five feet per second; but if excited to speed, they can dart along through thirty-five feet in the same brief space of time. Now in this period, as Kirby and Spence observe, ‘a race-horse could clear only ninety feet, which is at the rate of more than a mile in a minute. Our little fly, in her swiftest flight will in the same space of time go more than one-third of a mile. Now compare the immense difference of the size of the two animals—ten millions of the fly would hardly counterpose one racer—and how wonderful will the velocity of this minute creature appear!'”
© 2010 Steven Schwartzman