I love my friends I really do. My friends are kind, creative, fun to be around, infinitely surprising, and determinedly helpful. For example, if ever I mention that I am stuck in the quest for a word that is “sort of but not exactly X” I can guarantee that my friends will leap to suggest every possible synonym of X that they can think of.
This has the effect of making me feel loved, and cherished, and very aware that my friends and I were all the sort of people who sat in the classroom with our hands up, going “Ooh! Me Miss! I know! Ask me!”
Sadly, it hardly ever helps me find the word that I am looking for.
The thing is that is rarely simply the quest for a word.
Rather it is the quest for the word. The one and only perfect word that will sum up exactly what I want to express.
And synonyms, oddly enough, are almost never truly synonymous.
Allow me to explain in the most convoluted way possible.
Yesterday I went to see Northern Ballet’s production of The Great Gatsby, which was, in fact, pretty great. What stood out for me though, apart from the incredible dancing, the choreography, the skill and expressiveness of every dancer, and the general overwhelming power of the piece, was Jordan Baker’s pyjamas. Pyjamas, in the context of the modern day, are nightwear: a pair of loose fitted bottoms, and a top of some sort, designed to be worn in bed. In the context of the nineteen-twenties, however, pyjamas are a set of loose fitted, wide legged trousers, worn with a similarly loose fitted top, and not necessarily, or even probably worn in bed, especially when they were being worn by women. Pyjamas were a slightly daring sort of casual wear: you could have beach pyjamas, shopping pyjamas, gardening pyjamas. They were elegantly practical, only slightly scandalous, very decidedly fashionable wear. And while I’m loading them down with adjectives, I may as well add another one. Because a word that applies to nineteen-twenties pyjamas is “Mannish.” We don’t really see that word much nowadays. Unless we’re reading Agatha Christie, or some other writer of years gone by.
Mannish means that something, for example a person’s clothes, has characteristics that would usually be associated with men. It might be the studied casual elegance of a pair of nineteen twenties beach pyjamas, the severity of a short haircut in a place where long hair is to be expected, the firm, tweedy practicality of a stern-voiced woman in one of those Agatha Christies that I am absolutely going to claim count as research for this post. Mannish can mean lots of things. But there aren’t a lot of things that can mean mannish. If I look for a synonym, one word the thesaurus suggests is “Masculine.” Masculine, obviously, means male, or to do with maleness.
I could, in the right circumstances, use the word masculine to describe something that could also be described as mannish, but I would have to use more or different words in doing so, because mannish and masculine contain additional meanings, just under the surface. If I talk about a masculine haircut, or masculine cologne, I am talking about the maleness of the thing. If, on the other hand, I talk about a mannish haircut, or a mannish cologne, then I again refer to a sense of maleness, but at the same time remind my listener* that either the haircut, the cologne, their wearer, or all three are not actually male. Mannish contains both masculinity and the absence of masculinity. Masculine, perforce, does not. If I persist in my search for a synonym for mannish, I eventually end up at "Amazonian," which seems a little out of place when describing a nineteen-twenties flapper, even if she does wield a golf club on occasion.** Another option I am offered is “Unladylike” which is frankly hopeless. Words that on the surface of things have the same meaning, can have very different meanings underneath. And yes, I know I used “Meaning” twice in that sentence, but nothing else would have had the same connota- would have signifi- would have had the same sen- Nothing else would have meant the same thing! Ok? To an extent, we understand this when translating other languages. We can watch a subtitled film or television programme and recognise that not everything will be a direct translation of the spoken words. We might, if we speak, or sort-of-speak the language, and if we are a smug git, occasionally burst out with “But what he actually said was more like..!” But in general we understand that a certain amount of discretion must be applied. And the reason that we understand this is that we recognise that words in one language may not have the same meanings as the supposedly equivalent words in another. Last night, for example, I got a cup of coffee before the ballet. As I was leaving, the barista, who I know reasonably well, called out “See you later!” And I replied: Take care!” But how would I translate this into another language? I’m going to use Japanese because I can, and because it works pretty well for what I’m trying to say. “See you later!” Would probably be rendered by any translator as “Ja, mata ne?” This roughly means: “Well, see you later,” or; "Ok, later, huh?" More specifically, “Mata” means “later,” “Ne” is a particle meaning that the person speaking anticipates that person they are speaking to agrees or will agree with them, and “Ja” is best translated as “Well” or “So” or any number of other words that are almost, but not exactly, entirely unlike “Ja”. Foreign language translation is the equivalent of the drinks machine on the starship Heart Of Gold***. Meanwhile “Take care,” is easily translated into “Ki o tsukete!” Except that “Ki o tsukete” is something that you might say to someone who is leaving your house or, as it might be, coffee shop, which makes it a slightly odd thing for me to say to my barista: it’s more the sort of thing that the barista might say to me. So, when translating foreign languages we fudge things a little. We know that, on a basic level, there is no one word in language X that exactly corresponds to the equivalent word in language Z. We just do the best we can. It should probably be obvious that the same thing goes for synonyms within one language as well. After all, if “passenger” and “commuter” meant exactly the same thing, why would we bother having two words at all? We have so many words that are almost the same, and yet at the same time so very different to one another. It's human nature, I suppose, when a word doesn't quite fit the sense we need it for, to create a new version, or a whole new word, which does. And so are synonyms born, and the thesauruses to keep them in, and with which to torment innocent writers when they are trying to think. Which in turn leads the frantic writer to believe that, if so very many words can exist, and each of them uniquely fitted to its task, then somewhere, out there in the wilderness of philology, is the one word, the perfect word, that will sum up all the sense and feeling and deepest inner meaning of whatever it is they're trying to say. And hopefully sound good too. Of course we could fudge things a little, as in translation, to make them fit, but why would we, when somewhere the One True Word is out there, beckoning to us? All of which is to say that The Great Gatsby was excellent, that the costumes were beautiful, and that if you see me, staring helplessly into the void, trying to find a word that is halfway between “Prisoner” and “Victim,” and which doesn’t sound quite so Gilbert-and-Sullivan as “Interrogee,” then please don’t feel too superior as you pass me the thesaurus. Have a little pity for an author in her arduous quest for a word. Or suggest one yourself. It probably won’t be the right one. But it’s nice to know you care. * Or reader, more probably: this is me after all. ** Yes, I’m back at The Great Gatsby again. It was a really good show. You should go and see it. ***I assume that you already realised that this and the line above were both references to Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. If, somehow, you have yet to read this book (or listen to the radio series, watch the television program, or experience any of the other versions which are each subtly different but wonderful translations of one another) I recommend that you do so with all possible haste, even before you go and see The Great Gatsby. It is really very good indeed.