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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Synonymously Yours

Dirigible.  Blimp.  Airship.  Zeppelin,

Have you noticed that some things seem to have too many words for themselves?  How many different ways do we need to express a certain black bird of Poe-esque renown:

Raven.  Crow.  Rook.  Even just plain blackbird.

This is not meant as a wholesale condemnation of synonymy.  Finding the word most apt--le mot juste as our Franco-Canadian friends would have it (and the fact that English has no such phrase is a shame)--this is a writer's task.  And indeed there are few moments so satisfying as those where, after an exhausting search through one's mental (or actual) dictionary, a writer locates the perfect word for the particular occasion.  Everyone knows that knights slay dragons.  But what if a dragon is not slain but murdered?  Suddenly, with the change of one word, we have a whole different story.

But maybe this isn't synonymy at all.  In the space between denotation ("to end the life of another") and connotation (to slay, to murder, to kill, to butcher, to assassinate, etc., etc., etc.) lies the individual style.  One writer's character walks, another's ambles, still another's strides.  A hot dog is tasty, caviar is exquisite, fried chicken is scrumptious, and bread is just filling (unless it's from Outback--then it's otherworldly; how do they do it?  Sorry, onward!)  This is, perhaps, the realm of art.

In fact, it's debatable whether synonyms even exist.  The examples above don't exactly mean the same thing.  And if two words really do mean the same thing, then one of them simply has to go.  The Solipsist would hereby like to declare a moratorium on synonymous nouns.  A thing is a thing, and we need no more than one word to describe it.

So, do with this suggestion what you will: Hurl it into the vortex or the whirlpool or the maelstrom if you don't like it.  But save your word-choice energy for those verbs and adjectives that really require it.

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