Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Shades of meaning

My wife and I had a brief conversation recently about one of her feet. I described it as a "sore foot." She corrected me, saying it was an "aching foot."

I have before me an old book called The Synonym Finder, a handier version of Roget's Thesaurus. I had this book on my desk for much of my career, and I continue to consult it on occasion. A synonym is, by definition, a word that means the same thing as another word. Yet as the exchange with my wife illustrated, synonyms aren't always synonymous. Different words, however close they may be in meaning, often mean slightly different things to different people in different situations.

The word sore may have suggested a more severe pain than my wife was experiencing, so she favored aching as the better choice. Or it may have suggested a less severe pain or an external pain rather than an internal pain or some other shade of meaning. I just know that one word correctly described how her foot felt, and the other didn't.

Here are some other synonyms for sore listed in The Synonym Finder: painful, tender, sensitive, raw, smarting, stinging, burning, inflamed, irritated, achy and hurting. You may have used each of these terms to describe a pain, but chances are you have never used all of them to describe the same pain. A stinging pain is quite different from a sensitive pain, which is not the same as an achy pain.

Or take the word stop. Suggested synonyms include pause, desist, cease, halt and quit. Yet each of these words suggests something a little different. A pause, for example, sounds temporary, while quit seems permanent. Words like desist, cease and halt sound more intimidating. The phrase cease and desist implies the two words don't mean the same thing. A border guard might say halt, but the rest of us don't use it much. We probably would be confused if an octagonal sign used any word other than STOP.

The English language has so many words that mean almost the same thing because it has adopted words from so many different sources: Anglo-Saxon, Norse, French, Latin and Greek, to name the main ones. Other languages may be purer, in the sense of being less influenced by other languages, and that can make finding the right word so much easier. There just are not as many options. English vocabulary, however, allows any number of nuanced meanings so that we can say we have a sore foot or an aching foot and
not necessarily mean the same thing.

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