Taking up similarity of meaning and contrasts of phonetic shape, we observe that every language has in its vocabulary a variety of words, kindred in meaning but distinct in morphemic composition, phonemic shape and usage, ensuring the expression of most delicate shades of thought, feeling and imagination. The more developed the language, the richer the diversity and therefore the greater the possibilities of lexical choice enhancing the effectiveness and precision of speech.
Thus, slay is the synonym of kill but it is elevated and more expressive involving cruelty and violence. The way synonyms function may be seen from the following example: Already in this half-hour of bombardment hundreds upon hundreds of men would have been violently slain, smashed, torn, gouged, crushed, mutilated (Aldington).
The synonymous words smash and crush are semantically very close, they combine to give a forceful representation of the atrocities of war. Even this preliminary example makes it obvious that the still very common
definitions of synonyms as words of the same language having the same meaning or as different words that stand for the same notion are by no means accurate and even in a way misleading. By the very nature of language every word has its own history, its own peculiar motivation, its own typical contexts. And besides there is always some hidden possibility of different connotation and feeling in each of them. Moreover, words of the same meaning would be useless for communication: they would encumber the language, not enrich it. If two words exactly coincide in meaning and use, the natural tendency is for one of them to change its meaning or drop out of the language.
Thus, synonyms are words only similar but not identical in meaning. This definition is correct but vague. E. g. horse and animal are also semantically similar but not synonymous. A more precise linguistic definition should be based on a workable notion of the semantic structure of the word and of the complex nature of every separate meaning in a polysemantic word. Each separate lexical meaning of a word has been described in Chapter 3 as consisting of a denotational component identifying the notion or the object and reflecting the essential features of the notion named, shades of meaning reflecting its secondary features, additional connotations resulting from typical contexts in which the word is used, its emotional component and stylistic colouring. Connotations are not necessarily present in every word. The basis of a synonymic opposition is formed by the first of the above named components, i.e. the denotational component. It will be remembered that the term opposition means the relationship of partial difference between two partially similar elements of a language. A common denotational component forms the basis of the opposition in synonymic group. All the other components can vary and thus form the distinctive features of the synonymic oppositions.
Synonyms can therefore be defined in terms of linguistics as two or more words of the same language, belonging to the same part of speech and possessing one or more identical or nearly identical denotational meanings, interchangeable, at least in some contexts without any considerable alteration in denotational meaning, but differing in morphemic composition, phonemic shape, shades of meaning, connotations, style, valency and idiomatic use. Additional characteristics of style, emotional colouring and valency peculiar to one of the elements in a synonymic group may be absent in one or all of the others.
The definition is of necessity very bulky and needs some commenting upon.
To have something tangible to work upon it is convenient to compare some synonyms within their group, so as to make obvious the reasons for the definition. The verbs experience, undergo, sustain and suffer, for example, come together, because all four render the notion of experiencing something. The verb and the noun experience indicate actual living through something and coming to know it first-hand rather than from hearsay. Undergo applies chiefly to what someone or something bears or is subjected to, as in to undergo an operation, to undergo changes. Compare also the following example from L.P. Smith: The French language has undergone
considerable and more recent changes since the date when the Normans brought it into England. In the above example the verb undergo can be replaced by its synonyms suffer or experience without any change of the sentence meaning. The difference is neutralised.
Synonyms, then, are interchangeable under certain conditions specific to each group. This seems to call forth an analogy with phonological neutralisation. Now, it will be remembered that neutralisation is the absence in some contexts of a phonetic contrast found elsewhere or formerly in the language. It appears we are justified in calling semantic neutralisation the suspension of an otherwise functioning semantic opposition that occurs in some lexical contexts.
And yet suffer in this meaning (‘to undergo’), but not in the example above, is characterised by connotations implying wrong or injury. No semantic neutralisation occurs in phrases like suffer atrocities, suffer heavy losses. The implication is of course caused by the existence of the main intransitive meaning of the same word, not synonymous with the group, i.e. ‘to feel pain’. Sustain as an element of this group differs from both in shade of meaning and style. It is an official word and it suggests undergoing affliction without giving way.
A further illustration will be supplied by a group of synonymous nouns: hope, expectation, anticipation. They are considered to be synonymous, because they all three mean ‘having something in mind which is likely to happen’. They are, however, much less interchangeable than the previous group because of more strongly pronounced difference in shades of meaning. Expectation may be either of good or of evil. Anticipation, as a rule, is a pleasurable expectation of something good. Hope is not only a belief but a desire that some event would happen. The stylistic difference is also quite marked. The Romance words anticipation and expectation are formal literary words used only by educated speakers, whereas the native monosyllabic hope is stylistically neutral. Moreover, they differ in idiomatic usage. Only hope is possible in such set expressions as: hope against hope, lose hope, pin one’s hopes on sth. Neither expectation nor anticipation could be substituted into the following quotation from T.S. Eliot: You do not khow what hope is until you have lost it.
Taking into consideration the corresponding series of synonymous verbs and verbal set expressions: hope, anticipate, expect, look forward to, we shall see that separate words may be compared to whole set expressions. Look forward to is also worthy of note, because it forms a definitely colloquial counterpart to the rest. It can easily be shown, on the evidence of examples, that each synonymic group comprises a dominant element. This synonymic dominant is the most general term of its kind potentially containing the specific features rendered by all the other members of the group, as, for instance, undergo and hope in the above.
The synonymic dominant should not be confused with a generic term or a hyperonym. A generic term is relative. It serves as the name for the notion of the genus as distinguished from the names of the species — hyponyms. For instance, animal is a
generic term as compared to the specific names wolf, dog or mouse (which are called equonyms). Dog, in its turn, may serve as a generic term for different breeds such as bull-dog, collie, poodle, etc.
The recently introduced term for this type of paradigmatic relation is hyponymy or inclusion, for example the meaning of pup is said to be included in the meaning of dog, i.e. a more specific term is included in a more generic one. The class of animals referred to by the word dog is wider and includes the class referred to by the word pup. The term inñlusiîn is somewhat ambiguous, as one might also say that pup includes the meaning ‘dog'+the meaning ‘small’, therefore the term hyponym is preferable. We can say that pup is the hyponym of dog, and dog is the hyponym of animal, dog, cat, horse, cow, etc. are equonyms and are co-hyponyms of animal. Synonymy differs from hyponymy in being a symmetrical relation, i.e. if a is a synonym of b, b is the synonym of a. Hyponymy is asymmetrical, i.e. if a is a hyponym of b, b is the hyperonym of a. The combining forms hypo- and hyper-come from the Greek words hypo- ‘under’ and hyper- ‘over’ (cf. hypotonic ‘having less than normal blood pressure’ and hypertonic ‘having extreme arterial tension’).
The definition on p. 195 states that synonyms possess one or more identical or nearly identical meanings. To realise the significance of this, one must bear in mind that the majority of frequent words are polysemantic, and that it is precisely the frequent words that have many synonyms. The result is that one and the same word may belong in its various meanings to several different synonymic groups. The verb appear in ... an old brown cat without a tail appeared from nowhere (Mansfield) is synonymous with come into sight, emerge. On the other hand, when Gr. Greene depicts the far-off figures of the parachutists who ...appeared stationary, appeared is synonymous with look or seem, their common component being ‘give impression of’. Appear, then, often applies to erroneous impressions.
Compare the following groups synonymous to five different meanings of the adjective fresh, as revealed by characteristic contexts:
A fresh metaphor — fresh : : original : : novel : : striking.
To begin a fresh paragraph — fresh : : another : : different : : new.
Fresh air — fresh : : pure : : invigorating.
A freshman — fresh : : inexperienced : : green : : raw.
To be fresh with sb — fresh : : impertinent : : rude.
The semantic structures of two polysemantic words sometimes coincide in more than one meaning, but never completely.
Synonyms may also differ in emotional colouring which may be present in one element of the group and absent in all or some of the others. Lonely as compared with alone is emotional as is easily seen from the following examples: ... a very lonely boy lost between them and aware at ten that his mother had no interest in him, and that his father was a stranger. (Aldridge). I shall be alone as my secretary doesn’t come to-day (M.Dickens). Both words denote being apart from others, but lonely besides the general meaning implies longing for company, feeling sad because of the lack of sympathy and companionship. Alone does not necessarily suggest any sadness at being by oneself.
If the difference in the meaning of synonyms concerns the notion or the emotion expressed, as was the case in the groups discussed above, the synonyms are classed as ideîgraphiñ synonyms,1 and the opposition created in contrasting them may be called an ideographic opposition. The opposition is formulated with the help of a clear definitive statement of the semantic component present in all the members of the group. The analysis proceeds as a definition by comparison with the standard that is thus settled. The establishment of differential features proves very helpful, whereas sliding from one synonym to another with no definite points of departure created a haphazard approach with no chance of tracing the system.
“The Anglo-Russian Dictionary of Synonyms” edited by J.D. Apresyan analyses semantic, stylistic, grammatical and distributional characteristics of the most important synonymic groups with great skill and thoroughness and furnishes an impressive array of well-chosen examples. The distinctive features evolved in describing the points of similarity and difference within groups deserves special attention. In analysing the group consisting of the nouns look, glance, glimpse, peep, sight and view the authors suggest the following distinctive features: 1) quickness of the action, 2) its character, 3) the role of the doer of the action, 4) the properties and role of the object. The words look, glance, glimpse and peep denote a conscious and direct endeavour to see, the word glance being the most general. The difference is based on time and quickness of the action. A glance is ‘a look which is quick and sudden’. A glimpse is quicker still, implying only momentary sight. A peep is ‘a brief furtive glimpse at something that is hidden’. The words sight and view, unlike the other members of the group, can describe not only the situation from the point of one who sees something, but also situations in which it is the object — that what is seen, that is most important, e. g. a fine view over the lake. It is also mentioned that sight and view may be used only in singular. What is also important about synonyms is that they differ in their use of prepositions and in other combining possibilities. One can, for instance, use at before glance and glimpse (at a glance, at a glimpse) but not before look.
In a stylistic opposition of synonyms the basis of comparison is again the denotational meaning, and the distinctive feature is the presence or absence of a stylistic colouring which may also be accompanied by a difference in emotional colouring.
It has become quite a tradition with linguists when discussing synonyms to quote a passage from “As You Like It” (Act V, Scene I) to illustrate the social differentiation of vocabulary and the stylistic relationship existing in the English language between simple, mostly native, words and their dignified and elaborate synonyms borrowed from the French. We shall keep to this time-honoured convention. Speaking to a country fellow William, the jester Touchstone says: Therefore, you
clown, abandon, — which is in the vulgar leave, — the society, — which in the boorish is company, — of this female, — which in the common is woman; which together is abandon the society of this female, or, clown, thou perishest; or to thy better understanding diest; or, to wit, I kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death.
The general effect of poetic or learned synonyms when used in prose or in everyday speech is that of creating an elevated tone. The point may be proved by the very first example in this paragraph (see p. 194) where the poetic and archaic verb slay is substituted for the neutral kill. We must be on our guard too against the idea that the stylistic effect may exist without influencing the meaning; in fact it never does. The verb slay not only lends to the whole poetical and solemn ring, it also shows the writer’s and his hero’s attitude to the fact, their horror and repugnance of war and their feeling for the victims.
The study of synonyms is a borderline province between semantics and stylistics on the one hand and semantics and phraseology on the other because of the synonymic collocations serving as a means of emphasis.
Synonymic pairs like wear and tear, pick and choose are very numerous in modern English phraseology and often used both in everyday speech and in literature. They show all the typical features of idiomatic phrases that ensure their memorableness such as rhythm, alliteration, rhyme and the use of archaic words seldom occurring elsewhere.
The examples are numerous: hale and hearty, with might and main, nevertheless and notwithstanding, stress and strain, rack and ruin, really and truly, hue and cry, wane and pale, act and deed. There are many others which show neither rhyme nor alliteration, and consist of two words equally modern. They are pleonastic, i.e. they emphasise the idea by just stating it twice, and possess a certain rhythmical quality which probably enhances their unity and makes them easily remembered. These are: by leaps and bounds, pure and simple, stuff and nonsense, bright and shining, far and away, proud and haughty and many more.
In a great number of cases the semantic difference between two or more synonyms is supported by the difference in valency. The difference in distribution may be syntactical, morphological, lexical, and surely deserves more attention than has been so far given to it. It is, for instance, known that bare in reference to persons is used only predicatively, while naked occurs both predicatively and attributively. The same is true about alone, which, irrespectively of referent, is used only predicatively, whereas its synonyms solitary and lonely occur in both functions. The function is predicative in the following sentence: If you are idle, be not solitary, if you are solitary, be not idle (S. Johnson). It has been repeatedly mentioned that begin and commence differ stylistically. It must be noted, however, that their distributional difference is not less important. Begin is generalised in its lexical meaning and becomes a semi-auxiliary when used with an infinitive. E. g.: It has begun to be done — it has been begun. If follows naturally that begin and not commence is the right word before an infinitive even in formal style. Seem and appear may be followed by an infinitive or
a that-clause, a hill of a hundred metres is not high. The same relativity is characteristic of its antonym low. As to the word tall, it is used about objects whose height is greatly in excess of their breadth or diameter and whose actual height is great for an object of its kind: a tall man, a tall tree. The antonym is short.
A source of synonymy also well worthy of note is the so-called euphemism in which by a shift of meaning a word of more or less ‘pleasant or at least inoffensive connotation becomes synonymous to one that is harsh, obscene, indelicate or otherwise unpleasant.1 The euphemistic expression merry fully coincides in denotation with the word drunk it substitutes, but the connotations of the latter fade out and so the utterance on the whole is milder, less offensive. The effect is achieved, because the periphrastic expression is not so harsh, sometimes jocular and usually motivated according to some secondary feature of the notion: naked : : in one’s birthday suit] pregnant : : in the family way. Very often a learned word which sounds less familiar is therefore less offensive, as in drunkenness : : intoxication; sweat : : perspiration.
Euphemisms can also be treated within the synchronic approach, because both expressions, the euphemistic and the direct one, co-exist in the language and form a synonymic opposition. Not only English but other modern languages as well have a definite set of notions attracting euphemistic circumlocutions. These are notions of death, madness, stupidity, drunkenness, certain physiological processes, crimes and so on. For example: die : : be no more : : be gone : : lose one’s life : : breathe one’s last : : join the silent majority : : go the way of alt flesh : : pass away : : be gathered to one’s fathers.
A prominent source of synonymic attraction is still furnished by interjections and swearing addressed to God. To make use of God’s name is considered sinful by the Church and yet the word, being expressive, formed the basis of many interjections. Later the word God was substituted by the phonetically similar word goodness: For goodness sake\ Goodness gracious] Goodness knows! Cf. By Jovel Good Lord! By Gum! As in:
His father made a fearful row.
He said: “By Gum, you’ve done it now.” (Belloc)
A certain similarity can be observed in the many names for the devil (deuce, Old Nick). The point may be illustrated by an example from Burns’s “Address to the Devil":
Î thou! Whatever title suit thee,
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie ...
Euphemisms always tend to be a source of new synonymic formations, because after a short period of use the new term becomes so closely connected with the notion that it turns into a word as obnoxious as the earlier synonym.