Saturday, August 5, 2000

Partial twins
July 22, 2000
Language growth
July 8, 2000
June 24, 2000
The law and Latin
June 10, 2000
Vague words
May 27, 2000
Words from war
May 13, 2000


COMING from the Greek "same" plus "name", one would be justified in defining synonyms as lexemes which have the same meaning. A neat, precise definition which sounds straightforward enough. But try calling for help with cries of "conflagration" when caught in a fire! Or ask for aqua pura instead of mineral water at a time of dire thirst. The realisation is quick to come: there can be no two lexemes which have exactly the same meaning. It is mostly possible to find some nuance which separates them, or a context in which one word may appear and the other or others cannot.

There may be a dialect difference between words which are otherwise synonymous in meaning, making the communication impossible to understand. The British autumn cannot be replaced by the American fall; loo is accepted in American English but the British prefer restroom or toilet.

Stylistic differences between words also stand in the way of the perfect synonym. Insane and loony: the former is formal and the latter informal. At the table, one can ask for salt but not sodium chloride because it belongs to the technical register of chemistry. A friend cannot be addressed as thou. And when you marry, you are espousing yourself as per the dictionary of synonyms, but try printing that on the wedding invitation card!

There are collocational differences which we take into account before using words. Some words Ďbelong togetherí and canít be substituted easily. A murder is committed, never accomplished or achieved and a task is never committed even though the sense of Ďcarry outí would be applicable. Ignorance is always monumental but brilliance is never monumental, a loss is monumental, even though a profit is not. Coffee with milk may look sepia, hazel, beige, khaki, bronze, amber or any other brown, but it is white. Rancid and rotten mean the same but butter is always rancid and apples are always rotten.


A shade of emotional colour further complicates the situation between synonyms. Taking up a list of synonyms; can we call God everlasting, constant, endless, never-ending, permanent and undying in place of eternal and infinite? Youth and youngster are synonyms but cannot be used interchangeably.

These are just some of the ways in which words are prevented from becoming perfect synonyms. There may be so many others; the point is that there may be no such thing as a pair of perfect synonyms, words which can substitute for each other in all possible locations. Slight differences are usually present. For most practical purposes these differences can be ignored. Enough and sufficient, perplexed and bewildered, cherubic and angelic are so close in meaning that they can safely be called synonyms.


Hindi semantics explains the existence of synonyms on the basis of differing perspectives at various periods in time. Prayavachi words came into being when a concept came to be viewed from many viewpoints. When the mother was regarded as a woman to be respected, she came to be called maa or matri. As a life-giver, she became janani. At the same time, it is acknowledged that all the so-called synonyms are not perfectly matched. Ram-ram, namaskar, aadab-arz, salaam, pranam and jai-hind are all forms of greeting but are not interchangeable because they differ by way of shaili. Similarly, paathshala, madarsa, vidyalaya and school differ by way of bhaava. Some words are to be used together and cannot be replaced by others, like daakghar canít be daakmakaan, nar-naari canít be nar-stree and jal-paan canít be paani-paan. But kaidi and bandi, vayu and pawan can be safely called synonyms.

ó Deepti