“This parrot is no more”. When is a synonym not a synonym?

Stan’s recent post on poppycock, bunkum, and similar words includes a huge collection of synonyms. They’re not identical in every respect: there are differences in regional distribution (some are used very widely, others only locally), in register (some being more formal, others verging on the offensive), and in currency (with some fading from use, and others very much alive). But in semantic terms, they are completely synonymous: they are all different ways of referring to the same idea (in this case, “nonsense”).

The interesting thing is that true synonymy is extremely rare. There are very few pairs (or sets) of words which have exactly the same meaning. “Nonsense” is one of a small group of exceptions – concepts which, for some reason, attract large numbers of words and phrases. If you need to say that something is badly organized and ended in failure, the lexicon provides a range of options (like shambles, cock-up, or disaster), which all do pretty much the same job. Equally, you’ll have a wealth of expressions at your disposal if you want to describe someone as stupid or annoying (idiot, muppet, clown, moron etc), pregnant, rich, drunk, crazy, or dead. Monty Python’s famous dead parrot sketch reaches a climax as the aggrieved customer runs through a long list of colourful phrases, all of which express exactly the same idea: the parrot is, unequivocally, dead. And just as you can’t be partially dead, you can’t be a little bit pregnant either. Here again, there are plenty of choices, and – like the Monty Python customer – people sometimes enjoy going through the repertoire  if they feel the situation calls for a little emphasis, as in this extract from a novel in our corpus:

“I’m having a baby myself”. “You’re what?” Hugh seemed genuinely shocked. “Pregnant,” Caitlin repeated, with some irritation. “You know, bun in the oven, with child, up the duff, about to drop one …”

There are degrees of formality here, and dictionaries generally give enough information about register and style (is it formal, colloquial, impolite, or whatever?) to enable users to choose one that fits the context. But, as we have observed before, they don’t always provide an adequate account of pragmatics. For example, you can say someone is up the duff or that they will soon be hearing the patter of tiny feet, and there is no real difference in meaning. The first expression is labelled “impolite” in the dictionary, the second “humorous”  – but there is more to it than that. The patter of tiny feet has positive connotations (the example sentence in our entry hints at this), whereas if you select the phrase up the duff, you’re implying that the pregnancy is unwanted or inappropriate.

So for people who aren’t familiar with these phrases and might want to use them, a little pragmatic information would complete the picture. But it’s worth saying again that these concepts (dead, pregnant, nonsense etc) are the exceptions. In most cases, there is a single word or phrase for each meaning you need to encode – which is a sensible design feature for a language because it keeps the load on the speaker’s memory to a minimum. The choice, in other words, is which of several near-synonyms is most appropriate in a given situation, rather than which of several exact synonyms you feel like using. Before we had access to corpus data, it was quite a challenge to identify the differences (often very subtle differences) between words of roughly the same meaning. Older dictionaries would use synonyms as a way of defining words, so you might find clever defined as “intelligent, bright”, with similar “circular” definitions for other members of the set. But with large amounts of language data (and smart software) at our disposal, the differences reveal themselves pretty clearly. As for those exceptions to the general “rule” that exact synonyms don’t really exist, we’d be interested in hearing of any others you can think of.

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Michael Rundell


  • 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!’

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