Saturday, October 24, 2015
Synonyms Define Writers’ Success
The first book of synonyms, in English, appeared in 1766. The Difference Between Words Esteemed Synonymous, by Rev. John Trusler, showed how words that mean similar things can be substituted for one another. Replaced. Traded. Surrogate. Alternate. Pinch-Hitter. Get it? I happened upon a book, Webster’s Book of Synonyms, while browsing a used bookstore in Cambridge, MA. I fell in love with it.
The musty, old hardcover book was offered for just $4.50. It was printed in 1951 and had the look, feel, and scent of such a book. The back cover shows a black and white shot of the Merriam Company, then the publisher of the Webster dictionary line. I love the image of old file cabinets and people seated at paper-filled desks. Not a screen in sight.
I have dictionaries, in print and online, at hand, but I couldn’t resist adding this to my bookshelf. I felt like I was buying a piece of history.
This book is 64 years old. Think of all the words it’s missing - and how many have become outdated. It predates space exploration, the Internet, modern-day terrorism, the Super Bowl, and reality TV shows. It came out during the Korean War and The Cold War. McCarthyism would become synonymous with the Salem witch hunt. Rock and Roll exploded in the 50’s and it was a decade of Subway Series between the Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees.
“The way you write or speak is often the way people judge you – or your business. Knowing the right words will help you to express yourself clearly and to get across your ideas,” states the back cover. “Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms is a wordbook on a new plane, designed to help you use the right word in the right place – easily and quickly. It was prepared by the famous Merriam-Webster editorial staff.”
Interestingly, in this edition of 908 pages, they didn’t list the synonym for the word “synonym.”
There is a danger in thinking we can easily substitute one word for another. Each word has at its own unique definition, and subtle message attached to it. To trade one for another, as if one could perfectly fill the space of the other, is to mistakenly dilute some of our words. Words are linked to contex.t. They are never equal to each other.
For instance, overweight, fat, and chubby are not exactly the same thing, but may be used as synonyms for one another. Really, they are different degrees of each other. They are all connected to the physical concept of weight and of being more than what is perceived to be normal. But we feel differently when one says he is fat vs. obese or chubby vs. chunky.
Perhaps words can be grouped together in a similar fashion simply because they are more alike than any other words are like them, but still, no one term can truly replace another. First, think about how and why you say a word. Do you say something with a negative intention? “She’s a fat, dumpy girl who’ll never attract a prince.” Is it said to be encouraging? “One is not fat merely because they are not thin. She’s a normal weight.”
When two words combine to form a powerful picture it makes it even harder to use synonyms. Thin bitch lacks the same punch, as does husky bastard.
Words are the writer’s currency. How we use the words we have to work with will dictate what becomes of a great book vs. ordinary. There’s no synonym for greatness, no substitute for creativity, hard work, vision, and luck. Look it up.
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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2015