When Synonyms Are Not Synonymous

A rose by any other name...would be a dandelion.

They say that people judge us by the words we use.  It is equally true that we show our own judgments by the words we choose.  Words can carry more baggage than the United Airlines carousel at O’Hare. 

I am constantly amazed at how supposedly impartial reporters manage to get their personal biases across, oh so subtly, with their choice of words.

As these examples from http://thesaurus.com show, words that are technically synonymous can have different meanings, loaded with praise or criticism.   (Synonyms are shown in bold italics.)

Criticism: This rather negative term might be replaced with the observation of a neutral bystander, the more admiring appreciation, or a stern judgment rendered by a magistrate in robes and wig.  

Thrifty:  With its brother, prudent, this is a desirable trait.  How different from the mean-spirited, Silas Marner connotations of penny-pinching or close-fisted.

Wealthy: Something most of us would like to be, it goes along with the reassuring comfortable and admiring independent.  To the envious this is having it made, but made of money and rolling in it might be said with a slight sneer.  

 – Chubby:  A somewhat tolerant view of adipose, this is midway between the complimentary zaftig and disapproving tubby or fatty.

 – Investment:  This term, much in the political news lately, implies a prudent expenditure with an expectation of return almost reaching the level of a loan.   Others might classify money spent as a plain old expense.  Speculation is more risky and vested interests are self-serving.

 – Funny: Those of us toiling in the humor vineyards love this adjective, along with its clever cousin, witty. We might occasionally go for out-of-control hysterical, but rarely want to wear the foolish tag of silly.  

Rant:  This implies a lack of logic and/or self-control.  An advocate might stump or declaim, which is a more reasonable enthusiasm.  It takes an elder statesman to orate.

Ladywoman who exudes propriety.  She runs the gamut from a queen on her throne, to a dolla plaything.  Some might call her a bitch.  You know what that connotes.

Having a large vocabulary means we can express our thoughts precisely. We have to be careful, though, because our choices often say as much about us as they do about the topic.   To the attentive listener, the subtle nuances of word choices speak volumes.

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About pegoleg

R-A-M-B-L-I-N-G-S, Ram...Blin!
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13 Responses to When Synonyms Are Not Synonymous

  1. bigsheepcommunications says:

    I was going to list some synonyms for “reporters,” but I didn’t want to risk offending your readers….

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  2. pegoleg says:

    Thank you for your restraint. I don’t have enough of them to risk offending anyone. That’s why the reader is always right!

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  3. The "rooster" says:

    Please consult me next time; my personal “fingernails on the blackboard” is “AMAZING.” C’mon folks, can’t you use some variety, e.g., remarkable, incredible, or fantastic, (leave out ‘awsome,’ once in a while. We had too much of that several years ago, especially from jr. high kids and teenagers.) Pls. add to your repetoire, wonderful, magnificent, sensational, marvelous, stellar or grand. Hackneyed expressions tend to lose significant meaning and tell me nothing more than the user is trapped in a buzz word, flavor-of-the-month mentality. Originality & creativity might make the mind work harder in constructing individual communication, but it makes language more precise and certainly more effective. So then, if you’ve just had an extraordinary experience, please don’t refer to it as AMAZING…

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  4. Very nice. One of my favorite word tags is “little” as in, “So, how’s your little project going?”

    “Did you solve your little problem?”

    The newspaper the other day had an article in which two sides were represented. The one side “presented their arguments for the issue,” while the other “spewed rhetoric and shouted out objections.”

    It was not difficult to see in which direction the author leaned!

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    • pegoleg says:

      Ya think? I’m with you on the “little” – sounds so condescending!

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    • The "rooster" says:

      Yeah. I’ve got this nice ‘macho’ Ram extended cab pick-up truck that I’m very proud of. A farmer friend of mine said, “That’s a cute little pick-up truck you have there.” Needless to say, I was not gratified…

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  5. Artswebshow says:

    I agree although i’d never really given it much though in all honesty.
    It is especially important in blogging as words are the only thing a fellow reader sees.
    Word choice is essential.
    The odd 😀 doesn’t hurt either. lol

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  6. John Hunsinger says:

    A bias that is oh, so subtle it only leaves a faint tinge, is difficult for me to pick up on. I wish reporters would use ominous music and snidely whiplash voices, to make their intentions clear. By the way, great post Peg!

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    • pegoleg says:

      That’s a great idea! Just as is required in advertising, we should have Truth In Reporting laws. No more subliminal news items! (thanks John, so glad you stopped by!)

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  7. This such an important point, and yes, many journalists are guilty of bias in word choice (or worse).
    The overuse of words is another good point. I knew a couple who described everything as “unbelievable”. The intent was probably to make their life sound impressive –the actual effect was more literal: I didn’t believe them.

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