Joel of Far Outliers, who posts excerpts from the books he reads, has an entry on a problem I hadn’t really thought about, the meaning of synonym in a situation where there are many distinct dialects. From his translation of a section in Probleme de sinonimie, by Onufrie Vinţeler:

Sever Pop (cf. 1929) used to note that, within the territory of Romania, the following terms can be found to denote the concept of ‘horse trader’: barâşnic, craşcadău, cupeţ, factor, fleşer, geambaş, gheşeftar, ghiambabău, gârgez, făznar, hendler, herghelier, hâmbluitor, liverant, mecler, năstrăpaş, negustor, peţer, pilar, potlogar, precupeţ, precupitor, semsar, sfârnar, sfârnăroiu, şmecher, ţânzar, ţigan, tuşer. No one doubts that all the terms listed denote the same concept. The question that arises is the following: can each and every one of these words be considered synonyms? According to some definitions, still in circulation, all words that express the same notion are considered synonyms. Glancing over the list of words above, we observe that only the word negustor, which is the general term, and to a certain degree the word geambaş, are more widely known and can be considered synonyms; the rest are known only in more or less restricted areas. For the great majority of Romanians, words like barâşnic, gârgez, hendler, mecler, tuşer, and so forth do not mean anything; they are just as unintelligible as any others in a foreign language. Of course, in many places negustor can be a synonym of făznar, and geambaş with herghelier [‘herder’], and so on, but this only happens in certain places and not across the whole territory where Romanian is spoken.
These examples prove once again that for two or more words to be considered synonyms it is not sufficient that they express the same notion. And in cases of regional synonymy, the notion of synonym must be localized and made concrete.

There’s further discussion of words for ‘corn, maize’; the “standard” word porumb (which, oddly, used to mean ‘pigeon, dove’; the latter meaning is now expressed by porumbel) has several widely known equivalents, as well as (in one region) the loan word tenchi (borrowed from Hungarian tengeri, itself a synonym in Hungarian of kukorica, which is presumably from Slavic). It certainly makes sense to consider as synonyms only words that are in competition with each other in the same dialect; I can’t go along with Joel, who doesn’t “have any problem with considering terms in different languages to be synonyms”—that seems to me to stretch the sense of synonym beyond the bounds of usefulness.


  1. What exactly is a “horse trader”? My Romanian isn’t very good, but the only two words I recognize in this list are ?igan (gypsy) and ?mecher (sort of…someone who makes mischief and is trying to get ahead in life at the expense of others).

  2. Why “oddly”? Porumb is obviously from COLUMBA, with typical Romanian k > p (as in drepte < DIRECTAM/DEXTRAM) and l> r sound changes. I wonder rather how something with the phonetic shape of porumb should come to mean ‘maize’. Pigeon food?
    In any case, languages tend to fight pure synonymy either by dropping one of the synonyms (English has totally lost the verb wit in favor of know) or by specializing one (dog has usurped the place of hound, leaving the latter only for a certain type of dog) or by leaving it alive only as a metaphor (Norman puppy < poupée has taken over from Saxon whelp except in the figurative sense ‘human offspring’). Sometimes more than one process is operating: skin displaced hide except in the sense ‘animal skin’, but hide is now figuratively applied to human skin once again. Of course, there’s always furze, gorse, and whin, just to keep us on our toes.
    As for horse trading, the original meaning was simply ‘dealing in horses, usually by way of swapping rather than exchanging for money’; now it primarily a political term meaning (per NID3) ‘negotiation accompanied by shrewd bargaining and usually by reciprocal concessions; practical compromise’.

  3. Why “oddly”? Porumb is obviously from COLUMBA … I wonder rather how something with the phonetic shape of porumb should come to mean ‘maize’. Pigeon food?
    Oddly in exactly the respect you mention: that a word meaning ‘pigeon’ (why “phonetic shape”?) should come to mean ‘corn, maize.’ I thought that was clear from my post, which said, and I quote, “which, oddly, used to mean”—nothing about the etymology of the word itself. As to that, however, porumb is said to be from palumbes, not columba; I don’t know enough to form a judgment on the issue.
    As for “horse trading,” here it clearly has its original sense of ‘commercial dealing in horses.’

  4. Huh. The only word in that list that I knew with the meaning “horse trader” was negustor. Şmecher and ţigan are common words, but with different primary meanings. The rest of them were meaningless to me.
    Anyway, Romanian has an amazingly rich regional vocabulary, particularly in agriculture. I’ve done my best to pick up the regionalisms from my wife’s region: there seems to be a dialectal equivalent for every food item and farm implement. “Corn” for us is păpuşoi.
    John, I dispute the etymology porumb labial change in Romanian only occurs adjacent to a dental AFAIK (lapte p examples.

  5. Let me try that last paragraph again, taking care for entity encoding:
    I dispute the etymology porumb < COLUMBA because AFAIK the velar > labial change in Romanian only occurs adjacent to dentals (lapte < lactem, lemn < lignum). If anyone can offer other examples of unconditioned or word-initial velar-to-labial changes, I’ll retract my objection.

  6. If you categorically disallow synonyms across languages, and you reject a meaningful distinction between dialect and language, then aren’t you bound to run into problems of this sort all the time?
    The list is for the artificial language of comprehensive dictionaries, namely all the words spoken throughout the territory of Romania. Within that language, they are synonyms. If you then change your target language to be some particular regional dialect, then some fall out. It’s not that the synonymy extends across the dialects so much as that it is only valid for the fake dialect of the dictionary. You get the smallest set if you take the equally fake dialect that is the core that all real dialects share.
    In just the same way, the OED is for the language of English over a long period of time. Within it, there are lots of synonyms that no one ever actually used synonymously.

  7. If you categorically disallow synonyms across languages
    I don’t know what this means. To me, synonym means (in the words of Merriam-Webster) “one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses” (emphasis added). Furze and gorse are synonyms; English bread and French pain are not. I guess I can imagine the word being used in a broader sense, but I don’t see what you’d gain; how does it help to say “bread and pain are synonyms” instead of “bread is pain in French” or “pain is the French word for bread“?
    And I’m not sure where you’re getting that I “reject a meaningful distinction between dialect and language”; I didn’t say that, I said that it makes sense to me to limit synonym to words that are actually in competition in a single dialect, but I’m certainly not wedded to that—I just thought it was an interesting idea.

  8. I’m sorry. I meant “one”, not you personally.
    The definition you quote seems sound to me. Dissonance arises if one switches what “same language” means halfway through.
    It’s unusual, and probably not even useful, to consider the “language” of all words spoken in Western Europe, where bread and pain are synonyms. It is both usual and useful to consider the language of all the words spoken in Romania, taking all dialects and all registers. But hints of the same problem slip through.
    That’s all I was trying to point out. Not to make trouble.

  9. Ah, now I can parse your earlier comment the way you meant it. And for heaven’s sake don’t worry about “making trouble” — arguing about this stuff is fun!

  10. Is there a connection between columba and palumbes (

  11. Ah, it didn’t like my close-bracket. Never mind, the basic question stands. I was thinking along the lines of p/kw alternation in Gk/Skt. and Latin. An original *kwolumba?

  12. When I accept “synonyms” from separate languages, I’m thinking of communities where nearly everyone speaks at least two languages, and where people switch between them as frequently and as easily as they or others might switch between dialects of the same language. I’ve spent some time in such communities. In fact, my first published paper in graduate school after returning from fieldwork in a New Guinea village whose unique language had never been recorded in print was entitled “Multilingualism and Language Mixture” among the people of that village. People borrowed and calqued all the time, and even recreated for my benefit “pure” (but otherwise unused) equivalents in their own language by calquing backwards out of either the church lingua franca (which has since faded a lot) or Tok Pisin. Romanians did much the same a few centuries ago when they borrowed a load of new vocabulary from French, then creating Romanianized shapes for many of the words. Those pairs became synonyms. Sometimes the synonyms carved up semantic space in complementary fashion, and sometimes one form gave way to the other.
    I plan to translate several more chunks from Vinteler’s chapter on borrowings and synonymy. He compiled a lot of good examples.

  13. Great! This is fascinating stuff. And now I understand what you mean about synonyms across languages; makes sense.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Among the words, German Händler “trader” is obvious. Precupeţ looks like a Slavic buyer, though I’m not sure what that particular prefix is doing there; precupitor must be the same with a Romance suffix exchanged for the Slavic one. That said, what is “to buy” in Romanian?

  15. Coincidentally, Synonyms is how the word-set Coriander, Кинза, Cilantro, … is labeled on the page that Tatyana wanted in another thread. Perhaps due to page layout rather than philosophical concerns.

  16. what is “to buy” in Romanian?
    Cumpăra (from com-parare, like Spanish).

  17. Specifically about the concept “horse-trader”: my bet is that the richness of the concept might have influenced the number of terms, since horse traders are also often swindlers and horsethieves and fly-by-nights. So maybe some of the synonyms refer to actual horse traders, and others to legendary crooks.
    This is a guess and a question.

  18. Further to John’s point, those shady “horse-traders” are also likely to have been outsiders in the localities in which they conducted business (particularly those trading “pre-owned” horses!) and therefore likely to have spoken a different language amongst themselves, making horse-trading (and most commerce) a multilingual setting, in sharp contrast to the corn harvest in most rural villages. (By contrast, harvest time on most U.S. farms is very much a multilingual endeavor.)

  19. That second last word in the list, ţigan – would I be mistaken in linking that to Russian циган?
    Did the Roma do a lot of horse trading in certain areas?

  20. Interesting for me as Romanian native speaker is that I recognize some words to be associated with horse trader: geambaş, hendler, herghelier, negustor (de cai), semsar, liverant. All of them as archaic words.
    Some words are still used today but with a pejorative meaning: potlogar, şmecher, ţigan
    Gheşeftar – I recognize the first part gheŞeft/ ghiŞeft as an easy earning (buying something very expensive with much less money) another synonym could be chilipir & both words have Turkish origin. Both words still active…
    I recognize precupeţ, , precupeaţă (feminine form) still active words for farmers who are selling their products in the cities’ farmer markets.
    Năstrăpaş is a regionalism but today is more used as restless.
    A couple of other words I recognize them as Romanian words but I had no idea what meaning they have.
    About porumb (corn) & porumbel (pigeon). Well the male is called porumboi & in the late summer, when the corn plant in the corn field is overgrown is called porumboi too.
    For Claudius- yes, Roma did horse trading.

  21. David Marjanović says

    It was too late at night yesterday. Two more German words in there:
    That could be a Lieferant, a “deliverer” with a fake-French suffix (that happens in German). But I’d have thought that word must be too young to have made it all the way to Romania.
    Gheşeftar – I recognize the first part gheŞeft/ ghiŞeft as an easy earning
    Geschäft “business”. The suffix -er fits, too. The compound doesn’t exist in the kinds of German I have a good idea of, but that doesn’t include the Transylvanian ones.

  22. Since the columba/palumbes issue hasn’t been addressed here, I’ll provide Watkins’ solution:
    Columba from kel-5, grey or black (derivatives of columba are the only words listed).
    Palumbes (“grey bird”) from pel-2, pale, “influenced in form by Latin columbus, dove”. Cognate are ‘falcon’, ‘Pelops’, and ‘pale’ itself.

  23. Thanks Conrad, I had been wondering about that too.

  24. Yes, thanks, Conrad. Also, further to your suggestion above, Romanian does show p- from *kw- in patru ‘four’ (and patruped ‘quadruped’ and paisprezece ‘fourteen’).

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