The French novelist Gustave Flaubert believed that only one word could give justice to a particular thingāāle mot justeā
āand he obsessively searched for it before committing himself on paper. He may well have been right. After all, short of deliberately destroying the thing itself, there really isnāt much we can do to change its fundamental nature. Thus, in the English language, an āappleā will remain an āappleā till itās eaten and digested, and āEveā will remain āEveā even after she has eaten that apple
and is cast away from Paradise. However, however, thereās really no semantic law forbidding us to call an āappleā or āEveā by some other word the next time it figures in our thoughts or on our tongues.
How dreary language, communication, and literature would be, in fact, if Flaubertās prescription for wordsālike what is generally believed as the preferred French prescription for kissingāwere to be followed to the letter! Then we would have to contend every time with the tedium of going through passages like this:
The apple is the popular edible fruit of the apple tree. The apple has the scientific name Malus sylvestris and belongs to the family Rosaceae. The apple is widely cultivated in temperate climates. The apple has more than 7,000 varieties but only 40 are commercially important, and the most popular apple variety in the U.S. is called Delicious. Apples are of three main types: cooking apples, dessert apples, and apples for making cider.
Using synonyms or similar words in place of a particular key word is actually one of the most powerful devices for giving zest and substance to language. Along with the other reference word techniques that we have already learned, they help ensure that our listeners or readers wonāt tune us out because of boredom. Synonyms, while not exactly le mot juste
, allow us to clarify meaning by focusing on the wordās specific attributes, thus throwing new light on the same idea. They make laborious, complicated explanations unnecessary; as in painting, well-chosen single words or short phrases are quick brush strokes that illumine ideas or clarify meaning and intent. As Peter Mark Roget, author of Rogetās Thesaurus
, remarked in his introduction to the revolutionary book in 1852: āSome felicitous expression thus introduced will frequently open the mind of the reader to a whole vista of collateral ideas.ā
Indeed, see what happens to the dreary apple passage above when we take Rogetās prescription to heart:
The apple, the mythical fruit often associated with the beginnings of the world and mankind, is the popular fruit of the tree of the same name. The fleshy, edible pomeāusually of red, yellow, or green colorāhas the scientific name Malus sylvestris and belongs to the family Rosaceae. As a cousin of the garden rose, it has the same usually prickly shrub with feather-shaped leaves and five-petaled flowers. It is widely cultivated as a fruit crop in temperate climates. More than 7,000 varieties of the species are known but only 40 are commercially important, and its most popular variety in the U.S. is called Delicious. The fruit is of three main types: the cooking apple, the dessert apple, and the type for making cider.
This revised passage uses a total of eight apple synonyms and similar words: āpopular fruit,ā ātree of the same name,ā āpome,ā āa cousin of the garden rose,ā āa fruit crop,ā āspecies,ā āvariety,ā and āthe typeāāeach one capturing a new shade of meaning, aspect, connotation, or denotation of the apple and throwing the idea of the word āappleā in bolder relief.
We must beware, however, that synonyms can only establish contexts, not definitions; they may help illuminate discourse but not offer an analysis of things. For instance, in the revised apple passage, the synonyms used will be useful only to the extent that each of them is already understood by the listeners or readers. All of the apple-related words usedāexcept āpomeāāwork very well as synonyms in the passage because they are of common knowledge; depending on the target audience, however, āpomeā may need some clarifying amplification. (A pome, for those confounded by the word, is āa fleshy fruit with an outer thickened fleshy layer and a central core with usually five seeds enclosed in a capsule.ā) The speaker or writer must ultimately decide if such amplification is needed.
When using synonyms, we also must make sure that their antecedent wordsāwhether nouns, pronouns, or verbsāare clear all throughout. There is always the danger of overdoing the word replacements, particularly when the conceptual link between the original sword and the synonym is not strong enough. In that case, repeating the original word or using the obvious pronoun for itāāhe,ā āshe,ā āit,ā āthey,ā or āthemāāmay be more advisable. Go over the revised apple passage again and see how the pronoun āitā for apple was used twice to provide such a link and continuity.This essay first appeared in the weekly column āEnglish Plain and Simpleā by Jose A. Carillo in
The Manila Times and subsequently became Chapter 58 of his book
Give Your English the Winning Edge, Ā© 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.