synonyms
Posted: 30 June 2012 09:36 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Some time ago we had a discussion about synonyms which left me rather puzzled.  In my innocence, I had always supposed that “synonym” meant “a word with the same meaning as another word”; so I proposed “brothel” and “bordello” as exact synonyms. This proposition was turned down, with various posters reading different meanings into the two words. This distinction has left me with an uncomfortable feeling ever since. After some thought, I conclude that the word “meaning” is at the root of my discomfort. If we define a synonym as a word with the same definition as another word, it’s a whole different ball game (for example: AHD defines both “brothel” and “bordello” as “a house of prostitution”; you can’t get much closer to the same definition than that!). But AHD defines a “synonym” as a word with the same, or nearly the same, meaning as another word; so by that definition, an exact synonym would be a word with exactly the same meaning as another.
I believe that people much better informed than myself have argued long (and, one hopes, fruitfully) about the meaning of “meaning”, and I don’t propose to get very deep into those murky waters. But I’ve been thinking about two particular words, which to me, convey the same thing, and seem to me to be interchangeable in all the contexts I can think of; perhaps they are perfect, or near-perfect, synonyms? The words are “nearly” and “almost”. Can any poster (without merely quibbling) come up with a sentence in which “nearly” conveys a significantly different sense than would “almost”, if substituted?

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Posted: 01 July 2012 02:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The older thread is here.

I wouldn’t make a meaningful differentiation between meaning and definition. A definition is simply a description of a word’s meaning and will vary from dictionary to dictionary. (Definitions can be copyrighted.) But the meaning should be the same regardless of who writes the definition.

I think the problem is with exact, not with meaning. I don’t think that anyone would dispute that brothel and bordello were synonyms or that they had the same meaning. The quibble was over how exactly those meanings match. It is rare that two words will be used in exactly the same registers, contexts, and with the same connotations.

Look at the OED cites for brothel v. bordello:

a1593 H. Smith Wks. (1867) II. 26 Some [return] unto the taverns, and some unto the alehouses..and some unto brothels.
1608 Shakespeare King Lear xi. 87 Keepe thy foote out of brothell.
a1704 T. Brown Satire Against Woman in Wks. (1707) I. i. 84 We need not rake the Brothel and the Stews.
1711 R. Steele Spectator No. 190. ⁋2 You understand by this time that I was left in a Brothel.
1751 Johnson Rambler No. 171. ⁋12 Tricked up for sale by the mistress of a brothel.
1828 T. B. Macaulay Hallam’s Constit. Hist. in Edinb. Rev. Sept. 152 The offal of gaols and brothels.

1616 B. Jonson Every Man in his Humor (rev. ed.) i. ii, in Wks. I. 10 From the Burdello, it might come as well; The Spittle: or Pict-hatch.
1642 Milton Apol. Smectymnuus in Wks. (1738) I. 109 Proceed now to the afternoon; in Playhouses, he says, and the Bordelloes.
1719 Mr. Ratcliffe in T. D’Urfey Wit & Mirth IV. 23 Ah London th’adst better have built New Burdello’s, T’encourage She-traders and lusty Young Fellows.
1794 T. J. Mathias Pursuits of Lit.: Pt. I 19 The stews and bordellos of Grecian and Roman antiquity.
1930 E. Pound Draft of XXX Cantos xxviii. 130 And was lodged in a bordello (promptly).
1961 J. Heller Catch-22 (1962) xxiii. 236 The distant recesses of the strange and marvellous bordello.

From these it would seem that bordello carries a connotation of tolerance, perhaps even respectability. Brothel appears to be used in contexts where illegality and filth are implied. (As the brothel entry doesn’t appear to have been updated since the first edition, I wouldn’t trust this for a current definition and usage, but the comparison still illustrates how words can be synonyms yet still differ in usage.

Regarding nearly and almost, the difference is obvious. Nearly refers to “precision, closeness.” Almost refers to “degree, amount.” While they can be used interchangeably in many cases, nearly has a sense of “carefully, narrowly” and “particularly, in a special way” that almost does not. Nearly can also take modifiers, as in “more nearly,” that almost cannot.

Some examples where almost cannot be used from the OED:

1984 S. James Content Social Explan. 95 He has in mind a variety of factors, some more nearly connected than others.

1982 J. Campbell Grammatical Man ii. x. 113 These codes insure the transmission of messages as nearly perfect and free from error as the coder cares to make them.

1983 M. S. Power Hunt for Autumn Clowns 21 We would have had to wrap your sandwich in plain brown paper and that wouldn’t have been nearly as nice, would it?

You could use almost in that last one, but it would sound stilted and unnatural.

[ Edited: 01 July 2012 03:30 AM by Dave Wilton ]
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Posted: 01 July 2012 12:49 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Good examples - I shall stop looking for exact synonyms. Who needs them anyway? If such a pair existed, one of them would be superfluous, wouldn’t it?

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Posted: 01 July 2012 01:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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A
An

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Posted: 01 July 2012 11:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Gorse & furze.

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Posted: 04 July 2012 05:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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See-saw and teeter-totter.  I detect no difference of denotation or connotation or register in my idiolect.  Perhaps they are both regional terms which overlap in my idiolect.  Which raises the question, would a pair of words count as strict synonyms only if they have exactly the same geographic footprint?  Or can we meaningfully describe them as strict synonyms, even if not in all dialects.

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Posted: 05 July 2012 01:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I was thinking about elk and moose: but, of course, while the North American moose is the same as the Eurasian elk, the North American elk is something else entirely ...

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Posted: 05 July 2012 11:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Which raises the question, would a pair of words count as strict synonyms only if they have exactly the same geographic footprint?

Good point. There are thousands of these in the UK because we have so many regional dialects.

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Posted: 11 July 2012 11:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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There’s viper and adder, which I think have a similar footprint - at least, I’ve never heard that they have different ones.

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Posted: 11 July 2012 05:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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I think fans of herpetology would disagree, but that is, admittedly, a very small percentage of the population. For most people, I think viper and adder work equally well as a reference to a dangerous snake.

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Posted: 11 July 2012 05:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I’ve rarely (if ever) heard adder used to refer to an American snake, and to me it strongly suggests an Old World serpent.  Maybe that’s just my idiosyncrasy, though.

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Posted: 12 July 2012 03:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Taxonomically, viper has an association with the genus Vipera, while adder is often used specifically to refer to the species V. berus.

The OED lists several North American snakes that go by the name adder, such as the hog-nose adder, but with these exceptions, I don’t think adder is widely used in North America, though the word is far from unknown. So there’s a regional differentiation as well.

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Posted: 17 July 2012 02:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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(Kicks self for not remembering this classic pair of synonyms before) - while usage in the US and other parts of the world is obviously different, in British English “viper” and “adder” are almost legendarily regarded as two words for the same animal, the only poisonous snake in Britain. I’m not aware of any regional differences in usage, although I’m pretty certain that in the South East of England, where I grew up, while we were aware of the word “viper” we’d use “adder” for any that we saw. Old joke:

Vy did the viper vipe ‘er nose?

Because the adder ‘ad ‘er ‘andkerchief.

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Posted: 17 July 2012 08:25 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I think that one of the examples I gave in the old thread (nonetheless/nevertheless) stands up pretty well.

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Posted: 20 July 2012 09:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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http://www.wordorigins.org/index.php/forums/viewthread/212/ for furze and gorse according to Fowler.

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