Wednesday, April 6, 2011

And Now For Something Completely Different... The Synonym Game


So after last night's sort of weighty post (and thank you so very much to every one who joined the conversation, and please check over there if you haven't already), I thought I'd change up the pace a little bit.

I've suggested a few times that I will likely never be a truly literary writer for one main reason: I can never bring myself to pick the words I use more for their sound or their rhythm or their structure than for their meaning.  I'm a meanings guy and a precision guy.  I always have been, and I always be.

When I was a kid, my parents told me not to run though the puddle.  I jumped in it.  And I was bewildered when they were annoyed with me.  I wasn't smarting off; I just didn't understand how the two were supposed to convey the same essence.

I hope that I've gotten a little better over time, but I know it's not a whole lot.  It's taken my wife me most of our ten years to figure out how to talk about things in the kitchen.  To me, a pot and a pan are different.  A cup, mug, and a glass are all different.  And I would never use them interchangeably, and I still sometimes get confused when people do so in the casual rush of the day.

The flip-side of that is that, unfortunately, my precise definitions aren't always predictable.  That is to say, it's not quite the same taking everything literally in the way people usually mean.  For instance, a wooden spoon can be plastic and silver tape can be green.  In my mind, when I was forming definitions of the language, I didn't connect wood + spoon = wooden spoon.  Instead, I connected large, flat spoon for mixing in bowls and stirring while cooking = wooden spoon.  Likewise, we used to call duct tape, "silver tape."  In my mind that was not tape that is silver; it was tape that is broad, tough, and extra sticky and good for a lot of utility projects.

When it comes to writing, though, the important thing for me is that there are no true synonyms.  Every word has nuances that make it different from other words.  Most people will readily admit to that -- but to me those nuances are nonnegotiable.

I was thinking it would be fun if y'all would post some synonyms in the comments that seem fairly interchangeable to you.  I'll explain what are the important differences between them in my goofy mind up here in the post.  If anyone ends up pointing out some that I agree are pretty interchangeable, my next post will include a one line, Nevetsized story featuring them.

So have it!

And, it's okay to laugh at me. :)

First up: February Grace -- "Geek. Nerd. Brainiac. Poindexter."

A geek is obsessed with something that's pop-culture-y or hobby-ish, but either his obsession is over-the-top or the subject matter is out-of-the mainstream.   A nerd is someone who is smart, but socially awkward and tends to be someone who is clumsy and presents themselves poorly.  A braniac is someone who is as smart as a nerd, but need not be quite as clumsy -- but they're generally a smart Alec or a know-it-all.  A poindexter is a lot like a geek, except they're as smart as a nerd and their obsession is typically something academic rather than pop-culture-y.

Next up: SC -- "Grieve and mourn. Quickly and speedily.  Careless and sloppy.  Code, develop, and engineer."

For me you can grieve any time you're sad, but you only mourn death or a loss that take's death's metaphorical role.  To something quickly implies not only speed but some measure of alacrity.  It also suggests that individual steps are brief and efficient.  To something speedily feels broader to me, and does not imply any deftness or skill in execution, nor any efficiency in the particulars.  Careless requires an attitude specifically of not caring.  Sloppiness does not require that attitude.  The results of careless and sloppy work can look similar, but their genesis is very different.  As a 90% outsider on the word of software development, I doubt my definitions on the last three are correct, but to me coding is grinding through the lines; developing adds a layer of planning onto the coding; and engineering deals with the planning of the pieces and the cobbling together of discrete units of unit.

Back for a return visit: SC -- "elf, dwarf, sprite., fairy, gnome, brownie, goblin"

I'm usually on my own with these, but an elf is slender with pointy ears, a bit of green in the skin, and can be human-sized.  A dwarf in the same context is short, fat, ugly, surly, and essentially a tough human with the build of a woodstove.  Dwarves live in mountains and underground.  A fairy is tiny and has wings and lives among plants.  A gnome is smaller than a dwarf but much larger than a fairy.  It, like a dwarf, varies from humans by little other than its size.   Gnomes only live underground.  Brownies are gnome-sized or slightly smaller, usually have wings, but not may, and live nearer to people and human structures than fairies do.  Goblins are usually the size of dwarves or slightly larger.  They're fat.  They also don't look much like humans in the face.  They're usually green, brown, or cobalt.  They live underground but come out at night to raid.

Next at the plate: Samantha Sotto-Yambao -- "Agree. Concur. Yes. Okay."

The words yes and okay differ in formality (which is part of meaning in English, we just don't admit it).  But, more than that yes implies an affirmation, while okay merely serves as an acknowledgment.  I'll admit there's a lot of overlap between agree and concur.  For me, though, concur is between two parties or two propositions; it also suggests that one party is showing deference or respect to the other other party.  Agree can be between multiple parties and suggests more of an egalitarian resolution.

Also, y'all, click over to Samantha's blog and check out her new galleys!

Next up: ShannonLeigh1976 -- "Couch.  Sofa.  Davenport.  Chesterfield."

Okay, so this is the first definite, clear winner here.  I've never really gotten my head around Davenport or Chesterfield, and in my mind I don't have much of a distinction between couch and sofa apart from age, region, and maybe a little touch of formality.  But, honestly, I have to concede on this one.  Well done, Shannon!

Next to try: Michelle Davidson Argyle -- "Writer, author."

Part of me thinks I would be best off just declaring myself stumped so that I don't get in trouble with anyone, but instead I'll just beg everyone's indulgence and ask them to take no offense.  Because I do view these words very differently.  Importantly, I make no value different between the two, however.  That established, writer is a broader term and includes columnists, journalists, novelists, playwrights, passionate letter writers, and dedicated diarists -- among others.  It's simply someone for whom writing plays some significant role.  In that sense, it's a more casual word, as well.  An author is someone crafts complete prose pieces  with an intention that they be presented to a readership.



  1. As the wife in question I still feel that pots and pans are the same, and cups, glasses, and mugs are also all the same. Oh, and both the DVR remote and the TV remote can be referred to as "the TV remote." :-D But I always try and clarify... and I have gotten a little better about asking for a pot, when I want what you call a pot. ;-)

  2. Laugh? I shall never laugh at you only with you (the photos above those are a hoot though.)

    Okay, so here you go, looking at the reflection of my glasses in the monitor gave me the first word and I just went with it.

    Geek. Nerd. Brainiac. Poindexter.

    *folds arms and waits.*


  3. @Meghan - haha Yes, and hopefully I have learned (most of the time) to (try to) stop and think, "What's she probably asking for?" rather than just quickly respond based on my definition.

    @Bru - haha Thanks. :) And great set of words! You're a geek for at least some of the same reasons I am (Star Trek and the new Dr. Who come to mind), but the first thing that comes to mind when you look in the mirror should be a kind, creative soul.

  4. That's funny because, although you and I differ in such things, I, too, get caught on the literal subtle differences. For me, though, the trouble is with picking the word that has the correct nuance for what I intend to say. As so many people before me, (am I getting old?) I mourn the "shrinking vocabulary" of Americans.

    Anyway, I should try to make a contribution to the game, so....

    Grieve and mourn.
    Quickly and speedily.
    Careless and sloppy.
    Code, develop, and engineer. (with regard to computer programs only, please)

  5. @SC - Yeah, it's funny sometimes how you and I come to some similar places sometimes for completely different reasons.

    And you wanna talk about the shrinking vocabulary? Bust out some movies from the first half of the twentieth century. We're talking movies -- not high culture here.

  6. I know. It seems that somehow we lost a love of the well turned phrase. Although, actually, I think that the masses have never had the same love and what we are actually seeing a change in the parts of culture that are documented. I don't know that the make-up of society is much different from what it once was.

    There has always been plenty of flower girls to play "My Fair Lady"


    I'll take elf, dwarf, sprite., fairy, gnome, brownie, goblin for 2000 Alex.

  7. As an anthropologist, I'm sort of intrigued by the idea that it's not a shift in culture but in shift in what part of culture is documented (and/or how it's documented). I've often wondered about that when watching older films.

  8. "...there are no true synonyms. Every word has nuances that make it different from other words." Agree. Concur. Yes. Okay ;-)

  9. Shannonleigh1976April 7, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    This one comes from different seasons on my life: Couch (what I grew up saying), Davenport (what my Grandmother said), Sofa (what my husband used, and which I now use, and Chesterfield (word I learned from the infamous Barenaked Ladies song, If I had a Million Dollars).
    Somehow I feel like I should end this post with a phrase like, "EAT THAT!" but I won't.

  10. @Shannon - hahaha A well-earned Eat That. :)

  11. YES!!! I love it!! I'll need to think of some others.
    Next story you write, I hope the sauntry seductress lounges on the sofa, while the skittish detective hovers with uneasiness on the edge of the davenport!

  12. Ooo, that was fun to read.

    I have to say that seeing "Davenport" gave me a little shiver because a dear friend who passed away at the age of 92 last summer is the only person that I ever knew who actually called her sofa that. I miss her a lot.

    (and just cause you didn't mention this though I'm sure you know it already--in case anyone else wonders, Davenport was a brand name of couches- kind of like here we say "Kleenex" meaning tissue. That I knew. But.

    Chesterfield was apparently the Earl who invented the sofa as such. Who knew. I didn't until two seconds ago LOL.

    I love this game! I think your differences in description make perfect sense (I especially enjoyed your explanation of 'quickly'. A glimpes into the mind of Nevets. Fascinating.


  13. @Shannon - hahaha Sweet.

    Actually, there could be a cool story in there where each is consistently described in reference to a piece of furniture with one name, and the other with the other, giving the impression of two pieces of furniture, when in the end it is only one. Some nice possible symbolism with that. hmmm.

    @Michelle - You are going to get me in trouble! :)

    @Bru - haha I'm glad you're enjoying it. I am, too, though I'm also realizing that for a close reader I am giving away far more insight into my mind and psychology here than I had quite anticipated.

    I thought that Davenport was a brand, but in my mind I linked them to small couches or love-seats or something. I had no idea what Cheterfields, but I think I thought they were smaller too -- but probably only because they're forever linked to ottomans in my mind.

    I'm sorry for your loss, Bru. I hope you have warm memories of your friend, in addition to the sadness of her departure.

  14. fun post, but for some reason all my tired brain can come up with are oxymorons... jumbo shrimp. :D

    but good stuff here~ <3

  15. Last two posts have been red hot, spot on. Nice work.

  16. I love the word "davenport." I associate it with middleaged church ladies from the Midwest. Somebody calls it a "davenport" and you've got a whole character sketch there. To me, "Chesterfields" belong to very old ladies and usually sport antimacassars. Couches and sofas are pretty interchangeable, though. Except for potatoes. I've never heard of a sofa potato.

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