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The meaning and origin of the expression: Vice versa

Vice versa

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Vice-versa'?

The reverse of the previous statement, with the main items transposed. Vice versa originates as Latin, with the literal translation being 'the other way round' or 'the position being reversed', but is now fully absorbed into English.

The phrase is usually used to imply the complement of a statement without expressing as much in words; for example:

"Fish can't live where we are most comfortable, and vice versa".

It is often misspelled as visa versa.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Vice-versa'?

The English language has many expressions that refer to things being the wrong way around - 'inside out', 'upside down', 'topsy-turvy', 'the cart before the horse', 'arsy versy' etc. Even the commonplace word 'preposterous' literally means 'back-to-front'. This extravagance may be accounted for by an age-old English preoccupation with the supernatural and things that are not as they should be - the struggle between good and evil in other words.

'Arsy versy' is the oldest of these expressions, but this has now gone out of regular use and has been replaced by its modern compatriot 'a*** about face'. It is first found in Richard Taverner's Prouerbes or adagies with newe addicions, gathered out of the Chiliades of Erasmus, 1539:

"Ye set the cart before the horse - cleane contrarily and arsy versy as they say."

'Vice versa' is also found in print quite early, as in Anthony Copley's An answere to a letter of a Jesuited gentleman by his cousin, 1601:

"They are like to bee put to such a penance and the Arch-Priests vice-versa to be suspended and attained as Schismaticall."

Vice-versaIn 1915, the psychologist Edgar Rubin created a 'face/vase' cognitive illusion that is a visual equivalent of the phrase. Sadly, being Danish, Rubin described the conundrum as a 'synsoplevede figurer' (visual figure) and missed the linguistic open goal of calling the illusion 'Vase versa'.

See also - Latin Phrases in English.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

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