It is often claimed that there is no such thing as a true synonym. Many dictionaries’ definitions of “synonym” are along the lines of (I give the Collins version): “A word that means the same, or nearly the same, as another word. Such as bucket and pail”.
I have no problem with the “nearly the same” part, and I’d agree there aren’t two different words that mean exactly the same thing…with one exception.
Before we get to the exception, there is much to be said for the notion of every word having a particular meaning. The Collins example above isn’t a synonym. A pail is more likely made of metal, in my opinion, whereas an old-fashioned slatted wooden bucket wouldn’t strike me as a pail.
You might disagree. Or you may disagree. Because “might” and “may” certainly aren’t synonyms.
Words can mean nearly the same, or have the same general intention, of course. But there’s always a difference. The many ways to describe someone who is thin give a good example. “Slim” sounds healthy, “emaciated” does not. “Scrawny” is an insult, “willowy” or “lithe” is praise. “Lean” sounds powerful, “slender” doesn’t sound so strong. Yet all are “thin”.
You might like to consider the difference between an “illusion” and a “hallucination”, or a “couch” and a “sofa”, or “true” and “factual”. Pretty soon, you are examining huge swathes (or vast tracts) of your own vocabulary and asking what do words actually mean?
But we must get to the single exception to the “no such thing as a true synonym” law, and here it is. To me, “flammable” and “inflammable” mean exactly the same.
You might disagree. You might argue they are two versions of the same word. But they have distinct entries in almost all good dictionaries.
The prefix “in-” normally denotes a negative meaning (as in “indirect” and “insecure”), but “inflammable” is formed using a different Latin prefix in-, which has the meaning “into” and often has the effect of intensifying the meaning of the word in English. Does that mean “inflammable” is more flammable than “flammable” then? I’d say no. I’d argue that both equally mean “easily set on fire”.
You might disagree. Or you might hold that slake and quench are also true synonyms, or make a case for pristine/untouched.
Whatever your opinion, isn’t it wonderful that our rich and powerful language has such subtle nuances?
Word of the week
The worship of words. E.G: “We should all indulge in epeolatry because it improves us as people.”
Read the latest Oh my word! every Saturday in The Courier. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org