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  • I was just about to blog (though not so elegantly) along just these lines, Michael, with words for ‘nothing’: zip, diddly, squat, diddly squat, naught, nowt, nought, zilch, sod all, eff all, not a sausage etc. Also, the tendency to resort to foreign words for the same thing: nada, niente, nichts and to enjoy going through the repertoire, as seen here on the WDCS blog:

    ‘if it hadn’t been for a dolphin whistle being detected on the hydrophone and then us knowing where to look for the owner of the whistle, we’d have seen not a jot – nada, zip, zero, zilch, nix, rien – whatever language you say it in it all means the same…..nothing!!

    Another set would be words for ‘lots’: tons, billions, loads, masses, shedloads, truckloads, umpteen, scads, swathes, buckets etc. I could go on. I thought I’d add them here as they differ from the sets you mention as they’re not adjectives, yet the same observations you made all seem to apply.

  • Thanks, Diane – those are really nice examples of other ‘true-synonym’ sets. It’d be worth thinking what it is about these particular concepts that attract so many words and phrases. Reciting several of these in a row (as in your ‘nothing’ example and my ‘pregnant’ one) seems to be a popular move – it only works of course because they really *are* exact synonyms.

  • Yes, I think you were onto something, Michael, when you mentioned the fact that a lot of the sets you see used in this way are for concepts which aren’t really modifiable – as you say, you can’t be a little bit dead. Likewise, ‘nothing’ can’t really be modified, qualified or intensified. It seems with these concepts, and in the absence of modification options, we cast around for ways to emphasize them through repetition. Here’s a random example with the ‘broken’ set from a Google search: ‘My TV’s broken, kaput, knackered.’ Is it because we can’t say ‘very/extraordinarily broken’? Do we just do it for fun or through a linguistic urge to modify the (more-or-less) unmodifiable? What else might be going on? And do speakers of other languages do this? It would be interesting to hear from others.

  • This is a very interesting blog. I am a native Greek and we usually intensify ‘nothing’ (‘tipota’ in Greek) by saying ‘absolutely nothing’ (‘apolytos tipota’). But I think that this is quite common in English as well. So, my gut feeling is that this is a matter of register. When we speak in a formal manner, we may say ‘absolutely nothing’ but when we speak informally we may use the various synonyms or near synonyms, or even famous translations from other languages.

  • The unmodifiable concept seems to be valid, but I was also thinking that it might be that we create these lists for concepts that have been around longer (death, being pregnant, having sex are all pretty timeless). So, the same way Inuits famously have dozens of words for snow simply because it’s an ongoing part of their world, we would have more synonyms and variety for static concepts that are ongoing in our world(s).

  • There’s definitely fun to be had in listing synonyms to emphasize a point. I co-wrote a short pastiche Victorian melodrama for our drama group a few years ago. At the denouement the villain Squire Hardcastle declares: ‘Curses! My dastardly schemes are in shreds. I am thwarted!… foiled!… baulked!… and confounded!’