Back in 2003, Songdog alerted me to a pair of synonyms, gennel and snicket (and the resulting post sparked off almost three years’ worth of enjoyable discussion); now he draws my attention to an interesting column by lexicographer Erin McKean (discussed many times on LH, e.g. here and here) about synonyms:
Distinguishing between close synonyms (is the ground marshy or boggy?) is a point of pride for the word-minded, and being able to argue whether someone was nonchalant or blasé is a pleasurable parlor game, made all the more fun by there being no “right” answer. We may not agree as to the exact shade of difference, but we’re sure there is one.
Our desire for each different word to have its own meaning has deep roots. When children first learn language, one of the tenets of the language-acquisition process is a learning strategy called the “principle of contrast,” which posits that two words should never have the same meaning – and if they do, there’s something wrong with one of them. Children internalize this principle and eventually, with enough reinforcement, replace nonstandard forms with the correct ones. When a child says, “I did that goodly,” an adult will usually respond, “Yes, you did that well!”, and well eventually bumps goodly from its slot in the child’s vocabulary.
All well and good, but she goes on to discuss a phenomenon I find bizarre, the attempt to find semantic distinctions between spelling variants:
There are those who feel that grey is lighter than gray, or cooler, or yellower. One believer in the difference, writing in the Atlantic Monthly in 1902, suggested that gray was for “fur, and Quaker gowns, and breasts of doves, and a gray day, and a gentlewoman’s hair; and horses must be gray,” but that grey is for eyes (especially those of witches) and cold mornings.
There are other pairs, too, where what should surely be mere quibbles about spelling – ax or axe, omelet or omelette, catalog or catalogue – are taken to stand for perceptible differences in meaning. Omelette is held to sound “more sophisticated” than omelet (although they are pronounced in exactly the same way); to those who see a difference, a catalog is defined as a colorful publication listing things you can buy, but a catalogue is a list of (usually important) things, whether or not they are for sale. It wouldn’t surprise me to run into someone declaring that an ax is sharper than an axe, or bigger, or more useful.
Mind you, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with finding such differences; people do what they want with language, often unpredictably, and that’s great, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But finding a difference in meaning between grey and gray? Like I said, it seems bizarre to me.
Oh, and happy birthday, Songdog!