Synonyms are like spices: used in moderation, they enhance the taste; used without moderation, they obscure every flavour. Linguistic gustation differentiates between them under the titles synonymia and tautology. Though, of course, pleasurable variety for one reader is overabundance for another.
Let’s have a saucy example.
“She’s an Encyclopaedia, that woman.”
“Of all the vices, ancient and modern, and very interesting to riffle through.” He started stoking up the fire. “There’s everything in that woman, of the ghoul, the lamia, the Greek courtesan, the Barbarian queen, the low prostitute, the great lady of Rome, with something very partial, very gripping, very corruption of the fin-de-siècle, very Baudlerian, if I might put it like that: a slightly funereal seasoning of lust and quasi-Christian resignation; she’s as subject, a case-study. …”
“For the Salpêtrière, eh—let’s say the word. Another neurotic.”
—Jean Lorrain in The Unknown Woman (translation by Brian Stableford)
How’s that on the digestion?
Lorrain specialises in psychological studies of moral decadence—and there’ll be a separate post on his prose—but for now it suffices to note that to some people the quote may appear overdone. And that’s despite me having spared you the accompanying references to Pasiphae and the bull, Messalina’s promiscuity, and Cleopatra in general.
(Writing tip: Observe that Lorrain prepares the reader for the word-train by having his characters be aware of the upcoming speech figure: they call the woman an encyclopaedia. Clever. It helps believability.)
Whatever your opinion about the quote, it’s a valid one. If, in particular, you are trying to defend it as pleasurable variety, here is a boon to your arguments: no true synonyms exist.
Those are my words.
Fowler’s Dictionary (from 1968) is a tad more cautious, but just a tad. Here’s the first part of the entry under synonyms.
synonyms, in the narrowest sense, are separate words whose meaning, both denotation and connotation, is identical, so that one can always be substituted for the other without changing the effect of the sentence in which it is done. Whether any such perfect synonyms exist is doubtful, except perhaps when more than one name is given to the same physical object or condition, e.g. gorse and furze, undernourishment and malnutrition. But if it is a fact that one is much more often used than the other, or prevails in a different geographical or social region, then exchange between them does alter the effect on competent hearers, and the synonymity is not perfect. At any rate, perfect synonyms are extremely rare.
The Dictionary goes on to make a sensible observation, almost too sensible to ever be dispensed as an explicit piece of advice to writers:
…no one is likely to write well who does not expend, whether expressly and systematically or as a subconscious accompaniment of this reading and writing, a good deal of care upon points of synonymy.
I wonder how far writers get on merely the subconscious accompaniment. Perhaps that’s another name for Talent.
For the rest of us—who woo Talent by showering it with Effort—here’s a filtered list of pairs and snares from Fowler’s. They’re not synonyms, but a quick glance or a tired brain might consider them as “similar enough” (and sometimes they are, though, more often they are not).
(My distinguishing examples and the links to dictionary entries are available below.)
- acceptance and acceptation
- apologue and apology
- ceremonial and ceremonious
- derisive and derisory
- forceful and forcible
- fruition and fructification
- immovable and irremovable
- impassable and impassible
- ingenious and ingenuous
- judicial and judicious
- laudable and laudatory
- luxuriant and luxurious
- mendacity and mendicity
- precipitate and precipitous
- prescribe and proscribe
- regretful and regrettable
- sensual and sensuous
- transcendent and transcendental
- titillate and titivate
- triumphal and triumphant
How many could you clearly delineate within context?
How many would you confidently employ in your writing (without first checking the dictionary)?
Studying the full list from Fowler’s is likely to ensure you don’t confuse one of the pair for its snare, but this won’t improve your grasp of contextual synonyms such as lamia and the Greek courtesan. Handling these will mean stepping away from the cookbook and into the shoes of a creative chef.
From the point of rhetoric, synonymia—the repetition of partial synonyms—is a figure used for emphasis, clarity, and emotional punch. Tautologia is the vice. It is the repetition of the same idea in different words one time too many, or metaphorically speaking, it’s the overspicing of the linguistic stew as felt by the tastebuds of the reader.
Other notable figures within the same family include circumlocution, which substitutes descriptions for proper names or uses euphemisms (not a sin in itself), and pleonasm, which uses grammatically superfluous words (most often a sin).
On circumlocution, or periphrastic style, which inevitably involves many abstract nouns, Fowler’s has the following to say:
The existence of abstract nouns is a proof that abstract thought has occurred; abstract thought is a mark of civilized man; and so it has come about that periphrasis and civilization are by many held to be inseparable.
As for pleonasm, Fowler’s identifies the phenomenon of abstract appendages that are added to words. Some of his examples are: weather conditions for weather, temperature values for temperatures, height levels for levels, behaviour pattern for behaviour.
Also there’s the small matter of meaningless words.
Actually, definitely, well, etc. Words and phrases are often used in conversation, especially by the young, not as significant terms but rather, so far as they have any purpose at all, as aids of the same kind as are given in writing by punctuation, inverted commas, and underlining. It is a phenomenon perhaps more suitable for the psychologist than for the philologist.
Any psychologists in the audience?
Lastly, Fowler’s most trenchant warning about verbose writing comes under tautology.
It is true that words are cheap, and, if the cost of them as such to the writer were the end of the matter, it would not be worth considering. The intelligent reader, however, is wont to reason, perhaps unjustly, that if his author writes loosely he probably thinks loosely also, and is therefore not worth attention.
And the goal of any author is to be worth attention.
Indeed, words are your mind’s manifestation on the page; if they’re bland or dry or raw, a reader may deem, perhaps unjustly, the same to be true of you. But whilst Fowler gallantly offers wiggle room, E. B. White does not:
All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation—it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito.
The two statements are not at odds: writing is both the mirror of Self and the Self fleeing our mask.
What emerges is infuriatingly honest.
If you’re curious about synonymia, here are two more articles that explore the phenomenon as found in the wild:
- Synonyms to Spare, where Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach falls for a boy in Death in Venice (1912),
- One Word Is Not Enough, whereErnesto Sábato’s Castel, a painter-murderer, is obsessed by his inner demons in The Tunnel (1948).
Filtered list of pairs and snares from Fowler’s. Each link will open up a new tab with the word entry in Oxford Dictionaries. The examples in parentheses are mine.
- acceptance and acceptation (acceptance speech, but acceptation of a word)
- apologue and apology (Aesop’s apologue, but friend’s apology)
- ceremonial and ceremonious (ceremonial post, but ceremonious welcome)
- derisive and derisory (derisive comment, but derisory pay rise)
- forceful and forcible (forceful argument, but forcible entry)
- fruition and fructification (plans come to fruition, but apple fructification)
- immovable and irremovable (immovable object, but irremovable stain)
- impassable and impassible (impassable street, but impassible spirit)
- ingenious and ingenuous (ingenious mechanism, but ingenuous honesty)
- judicial and judicious (judicial system, but judicious editing)
- laudable and laudatory (laudable decision, but laudatory speech)
- luxuriant and luxurious (luxuriant hair, but luxurious hotel)
- mendacity and mendicity (“mendacity” of fake news, but poverty leads to mendicity)
- precipitate and precipitous (precipitate the downfall, but a precipitous drop)
- prescribe and proscribe (prescribe medication, but proscribe terrorist groups)
- regretful and regrettable (to be regretful, but to make a regrettable decision)
- sensual and sensuous (sensual dance, but dreaming is first a sensuous, then an intellectual experience)
- transcendent and transcendental (transcendent artistry, but transcendental realm)
- titillate and titivate (to titillate the audience, but to titivate one’s hair)
- triumphal and triumphant (triumphal arch, but triumphant smile)
Award yourself a triumphant smile for getting this far down the list.
This post is part of a series about the second (1968) edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler, as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers.