When Synonyms Are Not Synonymous

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

Here’s a post you may have missed last January.

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 carousel at O’Hare Airport. 


It never ceases to amaze me 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 sometimes 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.  I don’t need to explain what that implies.

Having a large vocabulary lets us express our thoughts precisely.   Our choices, however, often say just as much about us as they do about the topic.

The subtle nuances of word choice speak volumes to an attentive listener.

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About pegoleg

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

  1. bigsheepcommunications says:

    I could spend hours playing in a thesaurus. Does that make me weird, strange, odd or just special?

    Like

  2. I just posted on another site how I love words, I love how they twist and lay together and they tell a story even when you are doing nothing more than laying out facts.

    Like

  3. Lenore Diane says:

    Echoing your last line … we have a wealth of words to use; choose wisely.
    Brilliant, Peg.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      My father-in-law had an enviable vocabulary, and one of his favorite pastimes was perusing the dictionary. We used to have friendly debates on the wisdom of using words he KNEW his listener did not know. His view was that he was going for precision – to say EXACTLY what he wanted. I maintained that the point of communication is to communicate.

      We have his dictionary and sometimes when I’m leafing through it I come up with a note in his handwriting, God rest his soul.

      Like

  4. Great post, but in your last line you said almost word for word, what I was going to use for my comment. So now I’m just left with, Yeah, what you said! Which doesn’t say much for me, but I’ll make it a point to do better next time! But I still can say have a great day Peg, and mean it sincerely. 😀

    Like

  5. Tori Nelson says:

    This lady is a tramp, fo’ shizzle. Sorry. I’ve spent the morning watching Disney movies while listening to gangster rap. I’m a bit confused 🙂

    Like

  6. I will always remember a person of influence uttering “I think we have them under control.” In choosing “them”, the group referred to was completely singled out, isolated, marginalized, not included in the solution to the problem, not to mention the “under control” part. Is my comment a rant? Fullstop, as the English would say, er ‘nuf said. Great post. You got me going there.

    Like

    • pegoleg says:

      I especially notice this with the press. Sometimes the sheer weight of editorial buried in the question itself is staggering. This subtle bias is also shown by the location of a story in a paper – front page news, or Section E after the garage sale ads?

      Like

  7. This may come as a surprise, but I love words. I still have my ol’ beat up dictionary from high school. I would spend many lonely hours sifting through it. Does this make me look sad? pathetic? lugubrious? All three?

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  8. And now, I present, the telling comment of the day:
    ‘You write good, Peg.’
    Thank you. This has been, the telling comment of the day.
    🙂

    Like

  9. gojulesgo says:

    I love this post, Peg! Adore it. Cherish it. Admire it. I’m almost infatuated.

    Like

  10. As a former English Major I appreciate this post.

    Like

  11. Al says:

    And this from the master of the double entendre!

    Like

  12. I wasn’t blogging last year at this time, so thanks for re-posting this. Loved it!

    Like

  13. Barb says:

    Who needs a thesaurus when you can make up words? It’s a flibburry time waster to look up words…besides you have to know how to spell. Great post. Keep jivhobbing, PegO.

    Like

  14. kitchenmudge says:

    English is indeed rich with not-quite-synonyms. I often wonder how non-natives handle them. I’ve done a bit of language ranting of my own, if anyone cares to look:
    http://kitchenmudge.wordpress.com/tag/language/

    Like

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