Why Synonyms are not Identical Twins

Synonyms are like cousins. There’s Jamie and there’s Joyce and while they sit on the same family tree, they’re not the same person. When applied to humans, this concept seems not only obvious but comical, perhaps even dramatic, and yet synonyms are often considered interchangeable. Tell me, if they are always interchangeable, why do they exist as words unto themselves?

Sometimes I spend the better part of an hour searching for the perfect word to complete a sentence. Crazy, I know, but I love words. There’s something in that literary chase that appeals to me, something about digging for a few letters, letters that might perfectly summarize an entire concept of character trait, that makes me feel like an explorer.

I will demonstrate my point quite simply…. The following is a short poem by the renowned poet Robert Frost.

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a patch of old snow in a corner
That I should have guessed
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had brought to rest.

It is speckled with grime as if
Small print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten–
If I ever read it.

The following is the same poem, with every few words replaced by a synonym. You’d be surprised at how often people find the concept of “sorting” through synonyms to find the right one strange and pointless. It’s not pointless! As we’ll see…

A Patch of Old Snow

There’s a pad of venerable snow in a corner
That I should have postulated
Was a blow-away paper the rain
Had lugged to rest.

It is speckled with smut as if
miniature print overspread it,
The news of a day I’ve forgotten–
If I ever perused it.

Now consider the following…. We begin with the word grime. One of grime’s synonyms is smut. Smut could be described as salacious, salacious as lewd, lewd as dissolute.

Grime – Smut – Salacious – Lewd – Dissolute.

Yes, synonyms are helpful but they are not interchangeable in all scenarios. Despite what might seem an obvious point, one of the first lines every writing prof. gives an introductory writing class is “BEWARE OF THESAURUS.COM!”

 

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