Dictionaries and Synonyms

What you don’t know about dictionaries
can kill your writing

The idea of synonyms can trick you into using a "lightening bug" instead of calling down the "lightening" - As Mark Twain will explain in a moment.

A writer's resources should include a good dictionary, better yet, a shelf full of different ones. These books should be our best friends and one of our most important tools. But they have a few flaws that can lead a writer to a warped understanding of the nature of words.

One problem is that they specialize in associating the meaning of different words, rather than differentiating them. dictionaries

Diction-aries were originally introduced in the 1700's in an attempt to standardize the pronunciation and spelling of words, hence the name "diction-ary". The suffix "ary" means "having to do with" and the word "diction" originally meant simply "word".

As time moved on the word "diction" took on two shades of meaning: one having to do with word selection and the other having to do with the pronunciation of words. Neither, you will notice, have anything to do with the meanings of words. But as time continued to move forward the purpose of dictionaries was expanded to include reporting the common meanings of words as used by writers.

This article regarding the Oxford English Dictionary (opens in new window) is an interesting study in just how wacky that process was.

The point is that dictionaries were created by men, not god, and they can be and often are wrong; and one of those cases is in the area of "synonyms".

Many definitions include a list of synonyms such as:

"Synonyms: propose, pose, propound, submit. The central meaning shared by these verbs is to present something for consideration or discussion: propose a solution to a problem; a situation posing many questions and problems; propound a theory; submitting a plan."

It's fine to talk about similarities but if you're going to do so then you should also talk about differences. No, we are not talking about antonyms (words that mean the opposite of each other). What the dictionary should be saying is, "these are the similarities and these are the differences between these words."

That would lead to a much better understanding.

Instead one could get the idea that dictionary publishers are trying to associate the language down to make is simpler.

Perhaps – if they can remove enough words from the language by calling them Synonyms – they believe they can solve the illiteracy problem.

One popular dictionary defined the word synonym this way:

Synonym, noun

  1. A word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word or other words in a language.
  2. A word or an expression that serves as a figurative or symbolic substitute for another.
  3. Biology. A scientific name of an organism or of a taxonomic group that has been superseded by another name at the same rank.
  4. [Middle English sinonyme, from Old French synonyme, from Latin synnymum, from Greek sunnumon, from neuter of sunnumos, synonymous. See SYNONYMOUS.]

The word Synonymous literally means - same name. But since we are talking about words that are "different" having "different names" isn't it logical to assume that they have "different meanings".

It's just as important, if not more so, to focus on their "differences" rather than their "similarities".

If the "different" words didn't represent different concepts or ideas - why would they exist? dictionaries

Is there any reason to have multiple sound symbols (a.k.a. words) that all stand for exactly the same thing?

I don't think so!

The definition of Synonyms should be changed to mean - "too stupid or lazy to differentiate the meanings of – the two or more words in question".

Many times the key differences in the meanings of words (even the same word with different definitions) have to do with "time" or "action".

Eskimos have about 100 words for "snow". But just try telling him that all these different words mean the same thing – he'd think you were nuts. Because he knows that those different words represent very different types of snow. And each type of snow demands different actions on his part.

His very survival depends on differentiating the types of snow, not associating them and certainly not calling them the same thing or "synonymous".

Mark Twain said, "The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter - it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning."- Letter to George Bainton, 10/15/1888 dictionaries

It doesn't sound like Mr. Twain believed in words "...having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word..."

Twain was noted for his careful selection of words; which might explain why he so often called down the lightening.

Write on...

Richard A. McCullough dictionaries

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