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Deadly synonyms: why no two words are alike

John Murray

If you consult a thesaurus, or right click a word on Microsoft Word and select ‘Synonyms’, you’ll be given a choice of substitute words, but do any two words really mean exactly the same thing?

A funny example of how fallible thesauruses can be is seen in an episode of Friends, when Joey writes a letter to an adoption agency to extol Chandler and Monica as parents. Attempting to  allude to the couple’s warmth, big-heartedness and affable nature, his rigid use of a thesaurus leads him to describe them as “humid, pre-possessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps”.

This nonsensical sentence shows that words and their synonyms are not always interchangeable. While ‘warm’ and ‘humid’ have similar meanings if used to describe a climate, they are completely different terms if they refer to a person’s character.

Words don’t just describe the nouns, adjectives and verbs to which we assign them though; they also say a lot about the person using them and the context in which they’re used. To illustrate this, let’s talk toilets:

Water Closet

If somebody asked you where any of these are, they would want exactly the same thing: a place to relieve themselves. You would likely come to an altogether different assessment, however, about the character and social class of somebody who asked you “excuse me, would you be so kind as to direct me to the lavatory?”, and another person who enquired “where’s the bog, mate?”

Language, and the words that we use, are a big part of what gives us our identity. This is exactly why the totalitarian state in George Orwell’s dystopian novel ‘1984’ reduces it and comes out with progressively smaller dictionaries of Newspeak.

In this controlled language, basic words like ‘good’ still exist, but synonyms like ‘great’ and ‘exceptional’ do not. They’re replaced by intensifiers, so ‘great’ became ‘plusgood’ and ‘exceptional’ turned into ‘doubleplusgood’.

Opposites are also ditched; instead of ‘bad’, the word ‘ungood’ is used, and anything especially bad would be ‘doubleplusungood’. The party argues (and convinces most) that this makes language more efficient, but in reality it limits freedom of expression and causes people to lose their individuality.

That just shows the power of words and the liberties they give us. Make sure that the ones you use are wise, proud and straight from your aortic pump.

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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