This post is published in the ‘Live English’ channel which provides content for our Global English crowd: international users of English. Every month we ask our contributing bloggers a question about English and its quirks. The last question was about politeness and April’s question was about synonyms.
What’s your favourite synonym and why?
Personally, I sometimes like longer, softer Latin synonyms for often harder, shorter Germanic words. So “ubiquitous” instead of “everywhere” and “pulchritude” instead of “beauty”. The words flow off your tongue so easily and make a nice change from the more everyday word choices.
My favourite pair of synonyms: donkey & champagne.
I was once surprised to hear myself say “The donkey IS the champagne!” This is probably rather hard to make much sense of, riven from its context, so let me explain …..
In his model of intonation, David Brazil introduces the term ‘existential synonymy’. While synonymy in general is a relationship of equivalence (or at least near-equivalence) between the denotations of lexical items as they might be recorded in a dictionary or thesaurus, existential synonymy is a relationship of pragmatic equivalence between items in a particular context of interaction.
I was once one of a bunch of people writing a coursebook in Germany. We used to have lengthy and at times productive weekend meetings, and on those occasions we generally stayed in the same hotel. One of the quirks of this hotel was that when you arrived you found a useless little plastic toy – toy? gift? trinket? decoration? novelty? ornament? I’m not sure – in your room. There was a range of maybe about half a dozen of these things, so on two consecutive visits you might get one you’d had before or you might get a new one.
Once, during one of our meetings, we were collectively trying to establish exactly how many of these different items there were. In the course of listing them, somebody said “There’s the donkey, and there’s the champagne …”, and I said “The donkey IS the champagne!” I’d suddenly remembered, you see, that one of these little objects was a donkey carrying a bottle of champagne (not a real one, unfortunately) on its back, so that ‘the donkey’ and ‘the champagne’ were one and the same thing.
No dictionary would ever tell you that ‘donkey’ means ‘champagne’ – or at least I hope not! – but once, at least, at a particular point in space and time, their trajectories crossed, and for a fleeting moment they became existential synonyms.
I’ve always liked ‘oxters’, a word in Hiberno-English for ‘armpits’. Usually I hear it in the figurative phrase ‘up to my oxters’, which is synonymous with ‘up to my eyeballs’, more or less. Maybe a foot less! I just love the sound of the word.
I am very fond of Yiddish words and particularly like mensch – it suggests a set of qualities that ‘man’ or ‘person’ doesn’t capture. Similarly schlep is a lot more evocative than its nearest synonym, walk. Can I be bothered to schlep down to the post office? It’s raining and cold … That leads me to my favourite Yiddish synonym of them all. It’s not nice to kvetch or moan but it is a beautiful word
I don’t actually believe in synonyms. It’s the nature of language and communication that if we have two words, we’ll assign them different purposes. And, with enough context, I’d say that just about any two words could be used as synonyms. When I rolled my eyes and said the weather was ‘wonderful’ today, it meant the same as ‘horrible’!
So, my favourite synonyms are antonyms.
A few years ago I helped to compile and edit a learner’s thesaurus, organized in synonym groups. We lexicographers would work our way through these groups, considering in turn each set of words with similar meanings, and attempt to explain the differences in meaning and use between them. While I enjoyed working on this book immensely, I think it’s the closest I’ve come to ‘method lexicography’, analogous to ‘method acting’. It was difficult not to feel a bit low-key after spending a day with depressed, gloomy, demoralized, glum, despondent and dejected. Much better for my emotional well-being to become immersed for a while in calm, cool, relaxed, easy-going, laid-back, and so on. And there were times when I found the whole business curiously liberating. I remember the pleasure of marching off, not to mention storming, stomping, stalking and flouncing off, while all the time I was apparently sitting quietly at my desk, not saying boo to a goose.
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My favourite instance of ‘synonymy’ in the spotlight has got to be the short exchange between Woody Allen and Diane Keaton in the Woody Allen film, Love and Death.
Boris: Sonja, are you scared of dying?
Sonja: Scared is the wrong word. I’m frightened of it.
Boris: That’s an interesting distinction.
I love this because it’s funny, and because it is, indeed, an interesting distinction. For me, it raises a lot of questions: What criteria do two or more words need to meet to be considered ‘real’ synonyms? Why do we have synonyms? What is it that makes me uncomfortable with the idea of true synonymy?
Of course, in the context of this scene, the distinction and Sonja’s drawing of it, like much of what she says, is laughable. And I laugh every time I hear it. Maybe I’m laughing at myself at the same time? I do spend a lot of time trying to spot a difference between apparent synonyms such as scared and frightened, scary and frightening, frighten and scare, and scare and fright. It’s a relief to just sit back and laugh sometimes.