I look up more words in a dictionary now than ever before because it is so easy on my tablet. No more interrupting my fragile chain of thought by walking to another room, pulling a heavy print dictionary from a bookshelf, and paging through it. (I never properly learned the alphabet and often have to sing the whole sequence in my mind.) Sometimes, by then, I forgot what I was looking up.

Now I always have my tablet handy whenever I read.  All I have to do is open it up, tap, tap, and I have the definition at hand while still remembering what I was reading.  Another tap and I can hear it pronounced.

The problem is that the brief tablet definition is accompanied by several synonyms. Why use one rather than another?  The difference can be very important, for example, in the many words we use for our genitalia.  Some are appropriate for a medical textbook, some are mockingly disrespectful, and some will set the paper on fire.  You had better know which one to use.

I miss my old favorite, “Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms.” Look up almost any word and you are directed to a long discussion of how the various synonyms are used. As Webster says in the introduction, English has no true synonyms. Words that superficially mean the same have implications that dictate their use in specific situations. Otherwise, they would have died out.

As an example we can discuss, compare the words “bare, nude, and naked,” all meaning uncovered. “Bare” implies something that is usually covered, as in “barefoot” (without shoes), “bareheaded” (without a hat), “bare skin” (the wind was cold on my bare skin), and “the cupboard was bare” (the cupboard is usually filled).

“Nude” also means uncovered, but emphasizes the academic, asexual, unemotional aspect, and is used in phrases as, “the art class painted from a nude model.”  If you said, “the cupboard was nude,” no one would understand what you meant.

“Naked,” on the other hand, is full of sexual emotion, as in, “There she stood, naked as a jaybird!”

Next question: What’s a jaybird? Do they have any feathers?


About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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