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The synchronic treatment of English homonyms brings to the forefront a set of problems of paramount importance for different branches of applied linguistics: lexicography, foreign language teaching and information retrieval. These problems are: the criteria distinguishing homonymy from polysemy, the formulation of rules for recognising different meanings of the same homonym in terms of distribution, and the description of difference between patterned and non-patterned homonymy. It is necessary to emphasise that all these problems are connected with difficulties created by homonymy in understanding the message by the reader or listener, not with formulating one’s thoughts; they exist for the speaker though in so far as he must construct his speech in a way that would prevent all possible misunderstanding.

All three problems are so closely interwoven that it is difficult to separate them. So we shall discuss them as they appear for various practical purposes. For a lexicographer it is a problem of establishing word boundaries. It is easy enough to see that match, as in safety matches, is a separate word from the verb match ‘to suit’. But he must know whether one is justified in taking into one entry match, as in football match, and match in meet one’s match ‘one’s equal’.

On the synchronic level, when the difference in etymology is irrelevant, the problem of establishing the criterion for the distinction between different words identical in sound form, and different meanings of the same word becomes hard to solve. Nevertheless the problem cannot be dropped altogether as upon an efficient arrangement of dictionary entries depends the amount of time spent by the readers in looking up a word: a lexicographer will either save or waste his readers’ time and effort.

Actual solutions differ. It is a widely spread practice in English lexicography to combine in one entry words of identical phonetic form showing similarity of lexical meaning or, in other words, revealing a lexical invariant, even if they belong to different parts of speech. In our country a different trend has settled. The Anglo-Russian dictionary edited by V.D. Arakin makes nine separate entries with the word right against four items given in the dictionary edited by A.S. Hornby.

The truth is that there exists no universal criterion for the distinction between polysemy and homonymy.


The etymological criterion may lead to distortion of the present-day situation. The English vocabulary of today is not a replica of the Old English vocabulary with some additions from borrowing. It is in many respects a different system, and this system will not be revealed if the lexicographer is guided by etymological criteria only.

A more or less simple, if not very rigorous, procedure based on purely synchronic data may be prompted by analysis of dictionary definitions. It may be called explanatory transformation. It is based on the assumption that if different senses rendered by the same phonetic complex can be defined with the help of an identical kernel word-group, they may be considered sufficiently near to be regarded as variants of the same word; if not, they are homonyms.

Consider the following set of examples:

1. A child’s voice is heard (Wesker).

2. His voice ... was ... annoyingly well-bred (Cronin).

3. The voice-voicelessness distinction ... sets up some English consonants in opposed pairs ...

4. In the voice contrast of active and passive ... the active is the unmarked form.

The first variant (voice1) may be defined as ‘sounds uttered in speaking or singing as characteristic of a particular person’, voice2 as ‘mode of uttering sounds in speaking or singing’, voice3 as ‘the vibration of the vocal chords in sounds uttered’. So far all the definitions contain one and the same kernel element rendering the invariant common basis of their meaning. It is, however, impossible to use the same kernel element for the meaning present in the fourth example. The corresponding definition is: “Voice — that form of the verb that expresses the relation of the subject to the action”. This failure to satisfy the same explanation formula sets the fourth meaning apart. It may then be considered a homonym to the polysemantic word embracing the first three variants. The procedure described may remain helpful when the items considered belong to different parts of speech; the verb voice may mean, for example, ‘to utter a sound by the aid of the vocal chords’:

This brings us to the problem of patterned homonymy, i.e. of the invariant lexical meaning present in homonyms that have developed from one common source and belong to various parts of speech.

Is a lexicographer justified in placing the verb voice with the above meaning into the same entry with the first three variants of the noun? The same question arises with respect to after or before — preposition, conjunction and adverb.

English lexicographers think it quite possible for one and the same word to function as different parts of speech. Such pairs as act n — act v, back n — back v, drive n — drive v, the above mentioned after and before and the like, are all treated as one word functioning as different parts of speech. This point of view was severely criticised. It was argued that one and the same word could not belong to different parts of speech simultaneously, because this would contradict the definition of the word as a system of forms.


This viewpoint is not faultless either; if one follows it consistently, one should regard as separate words all cases when words are countable nouns in one meaning and uncountable in another, when verbs can be used transitively and intransitively, etc. In this case hair1 ‘all the hair that grows on a person’s head’ will be one word, an uncountable noun; whereas ‘a single thread of hair’ will be denoted by another word (hair2) which, being countable, and thus different in paradigm, cannot be considered the same word. It would be tedious to enumerate all the absurdities that will result from choosing this path. A dictionary arranged on these lines would require very much space in printing and could occasion much wasted time in use. The conclusion therefore is that efficiency in lexicographic work is secured by a rigorous application of etymological criteria combined with formalised procedures of establishing a lexical invariant suggested by synchronic linguistic methods.

As to those concerned with teaching of English as a foreign language, they are also keenly interested in patterned homonymy. The most frequently used words constitute the greatest amount of difficulty, as may be summed up by the following jocular example: I think that this “that” is a conjunction but that that “that” that that man used was a pronoun.

A correct understanding of this peculiarity of contemporary English should be instilled in the pupils from the very beginning, and they should be taught to find their way in sentences where several words have their homonyms in other parts of speech, as in Jespersen’s example: Will change of air cure love? To show the scope of the problem for the elementary stage a list of homonyms that should be classified as patterned is given below:

Above, prp, adv, a; act n, v; after prp, adv, cj; age n, v; back n, adv, v; ball n, v; bank n, v; before prp, adv, cj; besides prp, adv; bill n, v; bloom n, v; box n, v. The other examples are: by, can, case, close, country, course, cross, direct, draw, drive, even, faint, flat, fly, for, game, general, hard, hide, hold, home, just, kind, last, leave, left, lie, light, like, little, lot, major, march, may, mean, might, mind, miss, part, plain, plane, plate, right, round, sharp, sound, spare, spell, spring, square, stage, stamp, try, type, volume, watch, well, will.

For the most part all these words are cases of patterned lexico-grammatical homonymy taken from the minimum vocabulary of the elementary stage: the above homonyms mostly differ within each group grammatically but possess some lexical invariant. That is to say, act v follows the standard four-part system of forms with a base form act, an s-form (act-s), a Past Indefinite Tense form (acted) and an ing-form (acting) and takes up all syntactic functions of verbs, whereas act n can have two forms, act (sing.) and acts (pl.). Semantically both contain the most generalised component rendering the notion of doing something.

Recent investigations have shown that it is quite possible to establish and to formalise the differences in environment, either syntactical or lexical, serving to signal which of the several inherent values is to be ascribed to the variable in a given context. An example of distributional analysis will help to make this point clear.

13 И. В. Арнольд 193

The distribution of a lexico-semantic variant of a word may be represented as a list of structural patterns in which it occurs and the data on its combining power. Some of the most typical structural patterns for a verb are: N+V+N, N+V+prp+N, N+V+A, N+V+adv, N+ V+to+V and some others. Patterns for nouns are far less studied, but for the present case one very typical example will suffice. This is the structure: article+A+N.

In the following extract from “A Taste of Honey” by Shelagh Delaney the morpheme laugh occurs three times: I can’t stand people who faugh at other people. They'd get a bigger laugh, if they laughed at themselves.

We recognise laugh used first and last here as a verb, because the formula is N +laugh+ prp+N and so the pattern is in both cases N+ V+prp+N. In the beginning of the second sentence laugh is a noun and the pattern is article+A+N.

This elementary example can give a very general idea of the procedure which can be used for solving more complicated problems.

We may sum up our discussion by pointing out that whereas distinction between polysemy and homonymy is relevant and important for lexicography it is not relevant for the practice of either human or machine translation. The reason for this is that different variants of a polysemantic word are not less conditioned by context than lexical homonyms. In both cases the identification of the necessary meaning is based on the corresponding distribution that can signal it and must be present in the memory either of the pupil or the machine. The distinction between patterned and non-patterned homonymy, greatly underrated until now, is of far greater importance. In non-patterned homonymy every unit is to be learned separately both from the lexical and grammatical points of view. In patterned homonymy when one knows the lexical meaning of a given word in one part of speech, one can accurately predict the meaning when the same sound complex occurs in some other part of speech, provided, of course, that there is sufficient context to guide one.


Taking up similarity of meaning and contrasts of phonetic shape, we observe that every language has in its vocabulary a variety of words, kindred in meaning but distinct in morphemic composition, phonemic shape and usage, ensuring the expression of most delicate shades of thought, feeling and imagination. The more developed the language, the richer the diversity and therefore the greater the possibilities of lexical choice enhancing the effectiveness and precision of speech.

Thus, slay is the synonym of kill but it is elevated and more expressive involving cruelty and violence. The way synonyms function may be seen from the following example: Already in this half-hour of bombardment hundreds upon hundreds of men would have been violently slain, smashed, torn, gouged, crushed, mutilated (Aldington).

The synonymous words smash and crush are semantically very close, they combine to give a forceful representation of the atrocities of war. Even this preliminary example makes it obvious that the still very common

definitions of synonyms as words of the same language having the same meaning or as different words that stand for the same notion are by no means accurate and even in a way misleading. By the very nature of language every word has its own history, its own peculiar motivation, its own typical contexts. And besides there is always some hidden possibility of different connotation and feeling in each of them. Moreover, words of the same meaning would be useless for communication: they would encumber the language, not enrich it. If two words exactly coincide in meaning and use, the natural tendency is for one of them to change its meaning or drop out of the language.

Thus, synonyms are words only similar but not identical in meaning. This definition is correct but vague. E. g. horse and animal are also semantically similar but not synonymous. A more precise linguistic definition should be based on a workable notion of the semantic structure of the word and of the complex nature of every separate meaning in a polysemantic word. Each separate lexical meaning of a word has been described in Chapter 3 as consisting of a denotational component identifying the notion or the object and reflecting the essential features of the notion named, shades of meaning reflecting its secondary features, additional connotations resulting from typical contexts in which the word is used, its emotional component and stylistic colouring. Connotations are not necessarily present in every word. The basis of a synonymic opposition is formed by the first of the above named components, i.e. the denotational component. It will be remembered that the term opposition means the relationship of partial difference between two partially similar elements of a language. A common denotational component forms the basis of the opposition in synonymic group. All the other components can vary and thus form the distinctive features of the synonymic oppositions.

Synonyms can therefore be defined in terms of linguistics as two or more words of the same language, belonging to the same part of speech and possessing one or more identical or nearly identical denotational meanings, interchangeable, at least in some contexts without any considerable alteration in denotational meaning, but differing in morphemic composition, phonemic shape, shades of meaning, connotations, style, valency and idiomatic use. Additional characteristics of style, emotional colouring and valency peculiar to one of the elements in a synonymic group may be absent in one or all of the others.

The definition is of necessity very bulky and needs some commenting upon.

To have something tangible to work upon it is convenient to compare some synonyms within their group, so as to make obvious the reasons for the definition. The verbs experience, undergo, sustain and suffer, for example, come together, because all four render the notion of experiencing something. The verb and the noun experience indicate actual living through something and coming to know it first-hand rather than from hearsay. Undergo applies chiefly to what someone or something bears or is subjected to, as in to undergo an operation, to undergo changes. Compare also the following example from L.P. Smith: The French language has undergone

13* 195

considerable and more recent changes since the date when the Normans brought it into England. In the above example the verb undergo can be replaced by its synonyms suffer or experience without any change of the sentence meaning. The difference is neutralised.

Synonyms, then, are interchangeable under certain conditions specific to each group. This seems to call forth an analogy with phonological neutralisation. Now, it will be remembered that neutralisation is the absence in some contexts of a phonetic contrast found elsewhere or formerly in the language. It appears we are justified in calling semantic neutralisation the suspension of an otherwise functioning semantic opposition that occurs in some lexical contexts.

And yet suffer in this meaning (‘to undergo’), but not in the example above, is characterised by connotations implying wrong or injury. No semantic neutralisation occurs in phrases like suffer atrocities, suffer heavy losses. The implication is of course caused by the existence of the main intransitive meaning of the same word, not synonymous with the group, i.e. ‘to feel pain’. Sustain as an element of this group differs from both in shade of meaning and style. It is an official word and it suggests undergoing affliction without giving way.

A further illustration will be supplied by a group of synonymous nouns: hope, expectation, anticipation. They are considered to be synonymous, because they all three mean ‘having something in mind which is likely to happen’. They are, however, much less interchangeable than the previous group because of more strongly pronounced difference in shades of meaning. Expectation may be either of good or of evil. Anticipation, as a rule, is a pleasurable expectation of something good. Hope is not only a belief but a desire that some event would happen. The stylistic difference is also quite marked. The Romance words anticipation and expectation are formal literary words used only by educated speakers, whereas the native monosyllabic hope is stylistically neutral. Moreover, they differ in idiomatic usage. Only hope is possible in such set expressions as: hope against hope, lose hope, pin one’s hopes on sth. Neither expectation nor anticipation could be substituted into the following quotation from T.S. Eliot: You do not khow what hope is until you have lost it.

Taking into consideration the corresponding series of synonymous verbs and verbal set expressions: hope, anticipate, expect, look forward to, we shall see that separate words may be compared to whole set expressions. Look forward to is also worthy of note, because it forms a definitely colloquial counterpart to the rest. It can easily be shown, on the evidence of examples, that each synonymic group comprises a dominant element. This synonymic dominant is the most general term of its kind potentially containing the specific features rendered by all the other members of the group, as, for instance, undergo and hope in the above.

The synonymic dominant should not be confused with a generic term or a hyperonym. A generic term is relative. It serves as the name for the notion of the genus as distinguished from the names of the species — hyponyms. For instance, animal is a


generic term as compared to the specific names wolf, dog or mouse (which are called equonyms). Dog, in its turn, may serve as a generic term for different breeds such as bull-dog, collie, poodle, etc.

The recently introduced term for this type of paradigmatic relation is hyponymy or inclusion, for example the meaning of pup is said to be included in the meaning of dog, i.e. a more specific term is included in a more generic one. The class of animals referred to by the word dog is wider and includes the class referred to by the word pup. The term inсlusiоn is somewhat ambiguous, as one might also say that pup includes the meaning ‘dog'+the meaning ‘small’, therefore the term hyponym is preferable. We can say that pup is the hyponym of dog, and dog is the hyponym of animal, dog, cat, horse, cow, etc. are equonyms and are co-hyponyms of animal. Synonymy differs from hyponymy in being a symmetrical relation, i.e. if a is a synonym of b, b is the synonym of a. Hyponymy is asymmetrical, i.e. if a is a hyponym of b, b is the hyperonym of a. The combining forms hypo- and hyper-come from the Greek words hypo- ‘under’ and hyper- ‘over’ (cf. hypotonic ‘having less than normal blood pressure’ and hypertonic ‘having extreme arterial tension’).

The definition on p. 195 states that synonyms possess one or more identical or nearly identical meanings. To realise the significance of this, one must bear in mind that the majority of frequent words are polysemantic, and that it is precisely the frequent words that have many synonyms. The result is that one and the same word may belong in its various meanings to several different synonymic groups. The verb appear in... an old brown cat without a tail appeared from nowhere (Mansfield) is synonymous with come into sight, emerge. On the other hand, when Gr. Greene depicts the far-off figures of the parachutists who ...appeared stationary, appeared is synonymous with look or seem, their common component being ‘give impression of’. Appear, then, often applies to erroneous impressions.

Compare the following groups synonymous to five different meanings of the adjective fresh, as revealed by characteristic contexts:

A fresh metaphor fresh : : original : : novel : : striking.

To begin a fresh paragraph fresh : : another: : different : : new.

Fresh air fresh : : pure : : invigorating.

A freshman fresh : : inexperienced : : green : : raw.

To be fresh with sb fresh : : impertinent : : rude.

The semantic structures of two polysemantic words sometimes coincide in more than one meaning, but never completely.

Synonyms may also differ in emotional colouring which may be present in one element of the group and absent in all or some of the others. Lonely as compared with alone is emotional as is easily seen from the following examples: ... a very lonely boy lost between them and aware at ten that his mother had no interest in him, and that his father was a stranger. (Aldridge). I shall be alone as my secretary doesnt come to-day (M.Dickens). Both words denote being apart from others, but lonely besides the general meaning implies longing for company, feeling sad because of the lack of sympathy and companionship. Alone does not necessarily suggest any sadness at being by oneself.

If the difference in the meaning of synonyms concerns the notion or the emotion expressed, as was the case in the groups discussed above, the synonyms are classed as ideоgraphiс synonyms, 1 and the opposition created in contrasting them may be called an ideographic opposition. The opposition is formulated with the help of a clear definitive statement of the semantic component present in all the members of the group. The analysis proceeds as a definition by comparison with the standard that is thus settled. The establishment of differential features proves very helpful, whereas sliding from one synonym to another with no definite points of departure created a haphazard approach with no chance of tracing the system.

“The Anglo-Russian Dictionary of Synonyms” edited by J.D. Apresyan analyses semantic, stylistic, grammatical and distributional characteristics of the most important synonymic groups with great skill and thoroughness and furnishes an impressive array of well-chosen examples. The distinctive features evolved in describing the points of similarity and difference within groups deserves special attention. In analysing the group consisting of the nouns look, glance, glimpse, peep, sight and view the authors suggest the following distinctive features: 1) quickness of the action, 2) its character, 3) the role of the doer of the action, 4) the properties and role of the object. The words look, glance, glimpse and peep denote a conscious and direct endeavour to see, the word glance being the most general. The difference is based on time and quickness of the action. A glance is ‘a look which is quick and sudden’. A glimpse is quicker still, implying only momentary sight. A peep is ‘a brief furtive glimpse at something that is hidden’. The words sight and view, unlike the other members of the group, can describe not only the situation from the point of one who sees something, but also situations in which it is the object — that what is seen, that is most important, e. g. a fine view over the lake. It is also mentioned that sight and view may be used only in singular. What is also important about synonyms is that they differ in their use of prepositions and in other combining possibilities. One can, for instance, use at before glance and glimpse (at a glance, at a glimpse) but not before look.

In a stylistic opposition of synonyms the basis of comparison is again the denotational meaning, and the distinctive feature is the presence or absence of a stylistic colouring which may also be accompanied by a difference in emotional colouring.

It has become quite a tradition with linguists when discussing synonyms to quote a passage from “As You Like It” (Act V, Scene I) to illustrate the social differentiation of vocabulary and the stylistic relationship existing in the English language between simple, mostly native, words and their dignified and elaborate synonyms borrowed from the French. We shall keep to this time-honoured convention. Speaking to a country fellow William, the jester Touchstone says: Therefore, you




1 The term has been introduced by V.V. Vinogradov.

clown, abandon, which is in the vulgar leave, the society, which in the boorish is company, of this female, which in the common is woman; which together is abandon the society of this female, or, clown, thou perishest; or to thy better understanding diest; or, to wit, I kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death.

The general effect of poetic or learned synonyms when used in prose or in everyday speech is that of creating an elevated tone. The point may be proved by the very first example in this paragraph (see p. 194) where the poetic and archaic verb slay is substituted for the neutral kill. We must be on our guard too against the idea that the stylistic effect may exist without influencing the meaning; in fact it never does. The verb slay not only lends to the whole poetical and solemn ring, it also shows the writer’s and his hero’s attitude to the fact, their horror and repugnance of war and their feeling for the victims.

The study of synonyms is a borderline province between semantics and stylistics on the one hand and semantics and phraseology on the other because of the synonymic collocations serving as a means of emphasis.

Synonymic pairs like wear and tear, pick and choose are very numerous in modern English phraseology and often used both in everyday speech and in literature. They show all the typical features of idiomatic phrases that ensure their memorableness such as rhythm, alliteration, rhyme and the use of archaic words seldom occurring elsewhere.

The examples are numerous: hale and hearty, with might and main, nevertheless and notwithstanding, stress and strain, rack and ruin, really and truly, hue and cry, wane and pale, act and deed. There are many others which show neither rhyme nor alliteration, and consist of two words equally modern. They are pleonastic, i.e. they emphasise the idea by just stating it twice, and possess a certain rhythmical quality which probably enhances their unity and makes them easily remembered. These are: by leaps and bounds, pure and simple, stuff and nonsense, bright and shining, far and away, proud and haughty and many more.

In a great number of cases the semantic difference between two or more synonyms is supported by the difference in valency. The difference in distribution may be syntactical, morphological, lexical, and surely deserves more attention than has been so far given to it. It is, for instance, known that bare in reference to persons is used only predicatively, while naked occurs both predicatively and attributively. The same is true about alone, which, irrespectively of referent, is used only predicatively, whereas its synonyms solitary and lonely occur in both functions. The function is predicative in the following sentence: If you are idle, be not solitary, if you are solitary, be not idle (S. Johnson). It has been repeatedly mentioned that begin and commence differ stylistically. It must be noted, however, that their distributional difference is not less important. Begin is generalised in its lexical meaning and becomes a semi-auxiliary when used with an infinitive. E. g.: It has begun to be done it has been begun. If follows naturally that begin and not commence is the right word before an infinitive even in formal style. Seem and appear may be followed by an infinitive or

a that-clause, a hill of a hundred metres is not high. The same relativity is characteristic of its antonym low. As to the word tall, it is used about objects whose height is greatly in excess of their breadth or diameter and whose actual height is great for an object of its kind: a tall man, a tall tree. The antonym is short.

The area where substitution is possible is very limited and outside it all replacement makes the utterance vague, ungrammatical and even unintelligible. This makes the knowledge of where each synonym differs from another of paramount importance for correctness of speech.

The distinction between words similar in meaning are often very fine and elusive, so that some special instruction on the use of synonyms is necessary even for native speakers. This accounts for the great number of books of synonyms that serve as guides for those who aim at good style and precision and wish to choose the most appropriate terms from the varied stock of the English vocabulary. The practical utility of such reference works as “Roget’s International Thesaurus” depends upon a prior knowledge of the language on the part of the person using them. N.A. Shechtman has discussed this problem on several occasions. (See Recommended Reading.)

The study of synonyms is especially indispensable for those who learn English as a foreign language because what is the right word in one situation will be wrong in many other, apparently similar, contexts.

It is often convenient to explain the meaning of a new word with the help of its previously learned synonyms. This forms additional associations in the student’s mind, and the new word is better remembered. Moreover, it eliminates the necessity of bringing in a native word. And yet the discrimination of synonyms and words which may be confused is more important. The teacher must show that synonyms are not identical in meaning or use and explain the difference between them by comparing and contrasting them, as well as by showing in what contexts one or the other may be most fitly used.

Translation cannot serve as a criterion of synonymy: there are cases when several English words of different distribution and valency are translated into Russian by one and the same word. Such words as also, too and as well, all translated by the Russian word тоже, are never interchangeable. A teacher of English should always stress the necessity of being on one’s guard against mistakes of this kind.

Contextual or context-dependent synonyms are similar in meaning only under some specific distributional conditions. It may happen that the difference between the meanings of two words is contextually neutralised. E. g. buy and get would not generally be taken as synonymous, but they are synonyms in the following examples offered by J. Lyons: I’ll go to the shop and buy some bread : : Ill go to the shop and get some bread. The verbs bear, suffer and stand are semantically different and not interchangeable except when used in the negative form; can’t stand is equal to can’t bear in the following words of an officer: Gas. I’ve swallowed too much of the beastly stuff. I can’t stand it any longer. I'm going to the dressing-station (Aldington).



There are some other distinctions to be made with respect to different kinds of semantic similarity. Some authors, for instance, class groups like ask : : beg : : implore; like : : love : : adore or gift : : talent : : genius as synonymous, calling them relative synonyms. This attitude is open to discussion. In fact the difference in denotative meaning is unmistakable: the words name different notions, not various degrees of the same notion, and cannot substitute one another. An entirely different type of opposition is involved. Formerly we had oppositions based on the relationships between the members of the opposition, here we deal with proportional oppositions characterised by their relationship with the whole vocabulary system and based on a different degree of intensity of the relevant distinctive features. We shall not call such words synonymous, as they do not fit the definition of synonyms given in the beginning of the chapter.

Total synonymy, i.e. synonymy where the members of a synonymic group can replace each other in any given context, without the slightest alteration in denotative or emotional meaning and connotations, is a rare occurrence. Examples of this type can be found in special literature among technical terms peculiar to this or that branch of knowledge. Thus, in linguistics the terms noun and substantive; functional affix, flection and inflection are identical in meaning. What is not generally realised, however, is that terms are a peculiar type of words totally devoid of connotations or emotional colouring, and that their stylistic characterisation does not vary. That is why this is a very special kind of synonymy: neither ideographic nor stylistic oppositions are possible here. As to the distributional opposition, it is less marked, because the great majority of terms are nouns. Their interchangeability is also in a way deceptive. Every writer has to make up his mind right from the start as to which of the possible synonyms he prefers, and stick to it throughout his text to avoid ambiguity. Thus, the interchangeability is, as it were, theoretical and cannot be materialised in an actual text.

The same misunderstood conception of interchangeability lies at the bottom of considering different dialect names for the same plant, animal or agricultural implement and the like as total (absolute) synonyms. Thus, a perennial plant with long clusters of dotted whitish or purple tubular flowers that the botanists refer to as genus Digitalis has several dialectal names such as foxglove, fairybell, fingerflower, finger-root, dead men’s bells, ladies’ fingers. But the names are not interchangeable in any particular speaker’s ideolect.1 The same is true about the cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), so called because it grows in cornfields; some people call it bluebottle according to the shape and colour of its petals. Compare also gorse, furze and whim, different names used in different places for the same prickly yellow-flowered shrub.


The distinction between synchronic and diachronic treatment is so fundamental that it cannot be overemphasised, but the two aspects


1 Ideolect — language as spoken by one individual.



are interdependent. It is therefore essential after the descriptive analysis of synonymy in present-day English to take up the historical line of approach and discuss the origin of synonyms and the causes of their abundance in English.

The majority of those who studied synonymy in the past have been cultivating both lines of approach without keeping them scrupulously apart, and focused their attention on the prominent part of foreign loan words in English synonymy, e. g. freedom : : liberty or heaven : : sky, where the first elements are native and the second, French and Scandinavian respectively. O. Jespersen and many others used to stress that the English language is peculiarly rich in synonyms, because Britons, Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans fighting and settling upon the soil of the British Isles could not but influence each other’s speech. British scholars studied Greek and Latin and for centuries used Latin as a medium for communication on scholarly topics.

Synonymy has its characteristic patterns in each language. Its peculiar feature in English is the contrast between simple native words stylistically neutral, literary words borrowed from French and learned words of Greco-Latin origin. This results in a sort of stylistically conditioned triple “keyboard” that can be illustrated by the following:

Native English words Words borrowed from French Words borowed from Latin
to ask to question to interrogate
belly stomach abdomen
to gather to assemble to collect
empty devoid
to end to finish to complete
to rise to mount to ascend
teaching guidance instruction

English also uses many pairs of synonymous derivatives, the one Hellenic and the other Romance, e. g. periphery : : circumference; hypothesis : : supposition; sympathy : : compassion; synthesis : : composition.

The pattern of stylistic relationship represented in the above table, although typical, is by no means universal. For example, the native words dale, deed, fair are the poetic equivalents of their much more frequent borrowed synonyms valley, act or the hybrid beautiful.

This subject of stylistic differentiation has been one of much controversy in recent years. It is universally accepted, however, that semantic and stylistic properties may change and synonyms which at one time formed a stylistic opposition only may in the course of time become ideographically cognitively contrasted as well, and vice versa.

It would be linguistically naive to maintain that borrowing results only in quantitative changes or that qualitative changes are purely stylistical. The introduction of a borrowed word almost invariably starts some alteration both in the newcomer and in the semantic structure of existing words that are close to it in meaning. When in the 13th century the word soil (OFr soil,

soyil) was borrowed into English its meaning was ‘a strip of land’. The upper layer of earth in which plants grow had been denoted since Old English by one of the synonyms: eorþ e, land, folde. The development of the group has been studied by A.A. Ufimtseva. All these words had other central meanings so that the meaning in question was with them secondary. Now, if two words coincide in meaning and use, the tendency is for one of them to drop out of the language. Folde had the same function and meaning as eorþ e and in the fight for survival the latter won. The polysemantic word land underwent an intense semantic development in a different direction but dropped out of this synonymic series. In this way it became quite natural for soil to fill the obvious lexical gap, receive its present meaning and become the main name for the corresponding notion, i.e. ‘the mould in which plants grow’. The noun earth retained this meaning throughout its history, whereas the word ground in which this meaning was formerly absent developed it. As a result this synonymic group comprises at present soil, earth and ground.

The fate of the word folde is not at all infrequent. Many other words now marked in the dictionaries as “archaic” or “obsolete” have dropped out in the same competition of synonyms; others survived with a meaning more or less removed from the original one. The process is called synonymic differentiation and is so current that M. Bré al regarded it as an inherent law of language development. It must be noted that synonyms may influence each other semantically in two diametrically opposite ways: one of them is dissimilation, the other the reverse process, i.e. assimi1atiоn. The assimilation of synonyms consists in parallel development. This law was discovered and described by G. Stern. H.A. Trebe and G.H. Vallins give as examples the pejorative meanings acquired by the nouns wench, knave and churl which originally meant ‘girl’, ‘boy’ and ‘labourer’ respectively, and point out that this loss of old dignity became linguistically possible, because there were so many synonymous terms at hand.

The important thing to remember is that it is not only borrowings from foreign languages but other sources as well that have made increasing contributions to the stock of English synonyms. There are, for instance, words that come from dialects, and, in the last hundred years, from American English in particular. As a result speakers of British English may make use of both elements of the following pairs, the first element in each pair coming from the USA: gimmick : : trick; dues : : subscription; long distance (telephone) call : : trunk call; radio : : wireless. There are also synonyms that originate in numerous dialects as, for instance, clover : : shamrock; liquor : : whiskey (from Irish); girl : : lass, lassie or charm: : glamour (from Scottish).

The role of borrowings should not be overestimated. Synonyms are also created by means of all word-forming processes productive in the language at a given time of its history. The words already existing in the language develop new meanings. New words may be formed by affixation or loss of affixes, by conversion, compounding, shortening and so on, and being coined, form synonyms to those already in use.



Of special importance for those who are interested in the present-day trends and characteristic peculiarities of the English vocabulary are the synonymic oppositions due to shift of meaning, new combinations of verbs with postpositives and compound nouns formed from them, shortenings, set expressions and conversion.

Phrasal verbs consisting of a verb with a postpositive are widely used in present-day English and may be called one of its characteristic features. (See p. 120 ff.) Many verbal synonymic groups contain such combinations as one of their elements. A few examples will illustrate this statement: choose : : pick out; abandon : : give up; continue : : go on; enter : : come in; lift : : pick up; postpone : : put off; quarrel : : fall out; return : : bring back. E.g.: By the way, Toby has quite given up the idea of doing those animal cartoons (Plomer).

The vitality of these expressions is proved by the fact that they really supply material for further word-formation. Very many compound nouns denoting abstract notions, persons and events are correlated with them, also giving ways of expressing notions hitherto named by somewhat lengthy borrowed terms. There are, for instance, such synonymic pairs as arrangement : : layout; conscription : : call-up; precipitation: : fall-out; regeneration: : feedback; reproduction : : playback; resistance : : fight-back; treachery : : sell-out.

An even more frequent type of new formations is that in which a noun with a verbal stem is combined with a verb of generic meaning (have, give, take, get, make) into a set expression which differs from the simple verb in aspect or emphasis: laugh : : give a laugh; sigh : : give a sigh; walk: : take a walk; smoke : : have a smoke; love : : fall in love (see p. 164). E. g.: Now we can all have a good read with our coffee (Simpson).

N.N. Amosova stresses the patterned character of the phrases in question, the regularity of connection between the structure of the phrase and the resulting semantic effect. She also points out that there may be cases when phrases of this pattern have undergone a shift of meaning and turned into phraseological units quite different in meaning from and not synonymical with the verbs of the same root. This is the case with give a lift, give somebody quite a turn, etc.

Quite frequently synonyms, mostly stylistic, but sometimes ideographic as well, are due to shortening, e. g. memorandum : : memo; vegetables : : vegs; margarine : : marge; microphone : : mike; popular (song) : : pop (song).

One should not overlook the fact that conversion may also be a source of synonymy; it accounts for such pairs as commandment : : command] laughter : : laugh. The problem in this connection is whether such cases should be regarded as synonyms or as lexical variants of one and the same word. It seems more logical to consider them as lexical variants. Compare also cases of different affixation: anxiety : : anxious- ness; effectivity : : effectiveness, and loss of affixes: amongst : : among or await: : wait.



A source of synonymy also well worthy of note is the so-called euphemism in which by a shift of meaning a word of more or less ‘pleasant or at least inoffensive connotation becomes synonymous to one that is harsh, obscene, indelicate or otherwise unpleasant.1 The euphemistic expression merry fully coincides in denotation with the word drunk it substitutes, but the connotations of the latter fade out and so the utterance on the whole is milder, less offensive. The effect is achieved, because the periphrastic expression is not so harsh, sometimes jocular and usually motivated according to some secondary feature of the notion: naked : : in one’s birthday suit] pregnant : : in the family way. Very often a learned word which sounds less familiar is therefore less offensive, as in drunkenness : : intoxication; sweat : : perspiration.

Euphemisms can also be treated within the synchronic approach, because both expressions, the euphemistic and the direct one, co-exist in the language and form a synonymic opposition. Not only English but other modern languages as well have a definite set of notions attracting euphemistic circumlocutions. These are notions of death, madness, stupidity, drunkenness, certain physiological processes, crimes and so on. For example: die: : be no more : : be gone: : lose one’s life: : breathe one’s last: : join the silent majority : : go the way of alt flesh : : pass away : : be gathered to one’s fathers.

A prominent source of synonymic attraction is still furnished by interjections and swearing addressed to God. To make use of God’s name is considered sinful by the Church and yet the word, being expressive, formed the basis of many interjections. Later the word God was substituted by the phonetically similar word goodness: For goodness sake\ Goodness gracious] Goodness knows! Cf. By Jovel Good Lord! By Gum! As in:

His father made a fearful row.

He said: “By Gum, you’ve done it now.” (Belloc)

A certain similarity can be observed in the many names for the devil (deuce, Old Nick). The point may be illustrated by an example from Burns’s “Address to the Devil":

О thou! Whatever title suit thee,

Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie ...

Euphemisms always tend to be a source of new synonymic formations, because after a short period of use the new term becomes so closely connected with the notion that it turns into a word as obnoxious as the earlier synonym.



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