by Kate Woodford
In the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary the word ‘synonym’ is defined as ‘a word or phrase that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word or phrase in the same language’. As you might expect, definitions for this word are broadly similar in other dictionaries and yet the italicized phrase ‘or nearly the same’ is often absent. This seems to me an omission. Many words in English have the same basic or overall meaning and yet are significantly different for one or more reasons. Let’s look at the word ‘comprehend’ for example. Essentially, it means ‘to understand something’. And yet we don’t usually say that we comprehend an area of mathematics. We are more likely to say something like this
No one in the government seems to comprehend the scale of the problem.
They have failed to comprehend the seriousness of the threat.
It seems that we comprehend serious, difficult things – and the things that we comprehend are likely to be tricky situations rather than tricky subjects. (And perhaps not surprisingly, since the situations are difficult, we often fail to comprehend them.) To comprehend something, then, is to understand it, but this is not the whole story. The two verbs are not true synonyms.
In a previous post (Body shapes), I wrote about the various adjectives that we use to describe our figures. There is a wealth of adjectives to describe people who are thin, having little fat on their body, but most have an additional meaning. For example, ‘skinny’ and ‘scrawny’ mean ‘too thin’ or ‘unattractively thin’, ‘lean’ means ‘thin and strong’ and the adjectives ‘slim’ and ‘slender’ are used to mean ‘attractively or gracefully thin’. Few of these words – if any – have precisely the same meaning.
Of course, not all differences between ‘synonyms’ are found in the meaning of the word. One significant difference may be found in the word’s register (= style of language, for example formal or informal). To ‘purchase’ something is to buy it, but while ‘buy’ is used in normal, everyday English, ‘purchase’ is a formal word, such as you might see in a contract or a sign: Tickets must be purchased two weeks in advance. Similarly, the adjectives ‘excellent’ and ‘awesome’, in the sense of ‘extremely good’, may be synonyms in respect of their meaning. However, ‘awesome’ is very definitely informal while ‘excellent’ is not.
A third way in which apparent synonyms may differ is in their connotations, by which we mean the feelings or ideas that the words suggest which are not part of their actual meaning. For example, ‘woman’ and ‘lady’ both essentially mean ‘an adult female’, but the word ‘lady’ additionally suggests qualities that have traditionally been associated with women, such as politeness and self-control. These connotations are entirely absent from the word ‘woman’.