There’s No Such Thing as a Synonymous Synonym


Synonym: Syn”o*nym\ (s[i^]n”[-o]*n[i^]m), n.; pl. Synonyms (-n[i^]mz). [F. synonyme, L. synonyma, pl. of synonymum, Gr. synw`nymon. See Synonymous.] One of two or more words (commonly words of the same language) which are equivalents of each other; one of two or more words which have very nearly the same signification, and therefore may often be used interchangeably. See under Synonymous. [Written also synonyme.]

The succinct definition of “synonym” is “equivalent word,” and most dictionaries qualify that definition as signifying a word with nearly  the same meaning as another word.  According to the thesaurus, there is no synonym for synonym, and its antonym is… antonym.

Any serious writer or professional translator will tell you that there is no such thing as a true “synonym.”

Gustave Flaubert famously devoted himself to finding le seul mot juste — the unique right word — in order to convey his thoughts to his readers, avec précision. How very French indeed. Flaubert’s sentiment is enviable, though not necessarily practical. The rate of discourse — even serious discourse — usually exceeds the rate of poetic contemplation. When a person is using les mots justes in fluid conversation, it is said that they are speaking eloquently or articulately (though those are two different things, remember, no such thing as synonyms). However, it seems to me that there is something NICE in the ambiguity of words too… the slightly misplaced word with potential alternate meaning, a subconscious slip of the tongue, whether cunningly done or not, may please even the most ornery of linguists.

Yes, words can be used synonymously, but the words themselves usually have shades of meaning or semantic distribution where they are more appropriate to use, eg. house vs home, rock vs stone, bright vs brilliant. Even in seemingly synonymous slang terms there are subtle differences. Observe bloke vs chap (socioeconomic level of either speaker or subject), or even, shmuck vs putz (degrees of jerkiness and haplessness).

A salesperson that I once managed liked to point out that the difference between a vase (“vayse”) and a vase (“vahz”) is about fifty dollars.

Because language is fluid (because apparently we can now start sentences with because), over time, some words converge in their usage as other meanings are dropped. What feels like a violation however is when a word is introduced for no good reason: completionist, or out of pretension: the word “architect” used as a verb which is, of course (in my heavily biased opinion) a complete abomination.

Because language is fluid, over time, words flip their meanings (auto-antonymy) This can be a process of slow evolution, or it can be a rapid and deliberate hijacking of language.

Just as with other forms of evolution, the rate of change in language is a function of usage and exchange between individuals. With the rapid communication cycles of contemporary society, we can expect that 1) meaning shifts will happen faster, and also that 2) the “flattening” of terms, where they lose their distinctions, will also increase.

So, returning to where we left on our Siddhartha post comment thread, let’s wrap this up with a poem: “Thesaurus” by contemporary American poet, Billy Collins. Someone pointed out to me that the uniqueness of a word is like the uniqueness of person (and I suppose people can also change their meanings too). Although comparing words to people is perhaps too bold a metaphor, it does give the last stanza of this poem a powerful punch:  

It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.
It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.
Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.
I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.
I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.

About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on June 2, 2008, in Art, Communication Skills, Diversions, Jargon, Learning. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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