Reverse and Invert

By Maeve Maddox

Watching an episode of The Good Wife the other evening, I was puzzled by a lawyer character’s use of the word invert.

A witness had been murdered. The lawyer was trying to prove that the witness list had been leaked because the last two letters of the witness’s name were “inverted” on the official list and were also “inverted” on a note written by the killer.

I completely lost track of the story as I tried to figure out how the letters in what was presumably a typed word could have been turned upside down. Then the camera showed the list and I saw that the last two letters, e-r, had been reversed to r-e. Ah, I thought, reversed! I could turn my attention back to the story.

The experience got me thinking about the two words.

invert: 1533, from M.Fr. invertir, from L. invertere “turn upside down, turn about,” from in– “in, on” + vertere “to turn”

reverse: c.1300, from O.Fr. revers “reverse, cross,” from L. reversus, pp. of revertere “turn back”

In some contexts “inverted” does mean “reversed.”For example, an” inverted sentence” is one in which the verb changes its usual place and comes before the subject: Before me lay the ruined sword.

An “inverted syllogism” is one in which the statement “All A are B” invites the conclusion “All B are A.”

On the other hand, “inverted commas,” another term for “quotation marks,” is so termed because opening quotation marks (in some fonts anyway) are upside-down commas.

Depending on the typeface, opening and closing quotation marks may be identical in form (called “vertical”, “straight”, or “typewriter” quotation marks), or they may be distinctly left-handed and right-handed (“typographic” or, colloquially, “curly” quotation marks). The closing single quotation mark is identical or similar in form to the apostrophe, and similar to the prime symbol. –Wikipedia

The OED lists 13 definitions with numerous sub-definitions for reverse, including “invert.” It gives 10 for invert, including “reverse.”

I’m sure that not every viewer boggled at the lawyer’s use of the word inverted in the Good Wife episode, but I doubt that I was the only one who did. It’s probably a good idea to think about possible ambiguity when using these words.

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6 Responses to “Reverse and Invert”

  • Peter

    Ah, I thought, reversed! I could turn my attention back to the story.

    If they were reversed, they’d be in the same order but mirrorwise (“ɘ” rather than “e”). Transposed is the word you want!

  • Phil Dragonetti

    “Transpose” is the word usually used to describe reversing the sequential order of two letters. Dyslexic people sometimes see letters tranposed like that. They might see “er” as “re”.

  • Emma

    The interesting thing, of course, about “transpose” & in particular the “er/re” example given, is that it’s also possible that it’s a UK / US spelling difference – e.g. “theatre”, “theater” / “meter”, ‘metre” & so on!

  • Steve Campbell

    This conversation takes me back to my college class in symbolic logic (taught, interestingly, by the philosophy department). There we learned the four variations of a proposition: the obverse (the proposition itself), the inverse, the converse, and the contrapositive.

    Obverse: If P then Q.
    Inverse: If not P then not Q.
    Converse: If Q then P.
    Contrapositive: If not Q then not P.

    If the obverse is true, then the contrapositive is also true. The inverse and converse may not be. To test this, let P be “it is raining” and let Q be “it is cloudy outside.” Try it.

  • Maeve

    Peter, yes. Transposed is better.

    Emma, the word that ended in er was a surname that was supposed to end in “er,” something like Gardner.

  • Peter

    I just saw this episode (“Fleas”)…but I can’t remember the name (it was actually the victim’s middle name)

    (It was another scene that jumped out at me: when Alicia was talking with the accused lawyer and his daughter/partner, the daughter said “we” had been at the office at the time she was asking about; Alicia asked “who is we?”, and she said “we, dad and me.” Ugh.)

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