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15 May 2012
The Joy of Synonyms

The Norman conquest of England over a thousand years ago was undoubtedly unpleasant for those Englishmen who were there at the time, but it has had a beneficial effect on the English language ever since. The reason for this is that the Normans spoke French, and over time that French has combined with old English to form a uniquely rich vocabulary.

This can be seen particularly clearly with synonyms. Modern English possesses a host of 'synonym pairs' with which the language has not chosen one word or another for a particular meaning, but has simply adopted both. So we get 'speed' from Old English, and 'alacrity' from French. The Old English wanted freedom, but the French wanted liberty. These synonym pairs are here in Old English, and present in French - so why do we not eliminate one of these redundant meanings?

We don't, because no synonym has the exact meaning of the other word in the pair. So 'speed' suggests sustained swiftness, but 'alacrity' usually involves a human moving fast from a stationary start. If a bull enters a field with speed, the people picnicking there will leave with alacrity. And so on.

But there is even more to it than this. Exactly which word we choose tells us a lot more than just a description. For example, if I say 'Fred is a profound thinker' it means that he thinks about serious matters and does it thoroughly, and I approve of Fred. If I say 'Fred is a deep thinker' my choice of adjective is deliberately the simpler Old English alternative. This will prompt my listener to look for other clues in my voice or facial expression which suggest that either I do not consider myself a profound thinker as well, or that I don't really believe that Fred is particularly good at thinking, and I'm being ironic.

An Englishman might use more formal adjectives to show that he is being polite or that he is offended (and sometimes Englishmen become polite to show that they ARE offended.) So if someone says 'I'm sorry if I was rude' there is a better chance that the apology is sincere than if the same person says 'I apologize for my presumption.'

As one gets to know another person, the choice of which set of adjectives that person uses in a particular situation becomes increasingly informative. We learn not only about what the speaker is describing, but how the speaker feels about that thing. From whether and how someone we know well asks 'What?' or 'Excuse me?' or 'I beg your pardon?' we can detect anger, apathy, aggression or apology - all without even leaving the letter 'a'.

English is unique among widely-used European languages in having this two-language heritage. We should make the most of the richness and clarity this gives to our communication - but not forget that there is a reason why a very frustrated and angry person will swear in 'basic Anglo-Saxon.' Sometimes we don't need subtlety.

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