Reverse and Invert
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.
Browse all articles on the Misused Words category or check the recommended content for you below:
Improve your English in 5 minutes a day! Subscribe to our Writing Tips and Exercises via Email
- You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!
- Subscribers get access to our archives with 800+ interactive exercises!
- You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!