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Dictionaries, 1 (1979) SYNONYMS AND THE COLLEGE-LEVEL DICTIONARY Donna I. Arnold Among the myriad of pencilled corrections on freshmen themes often appears the symbol d (diction) or ex (exactness), depending on which handbook is being used. Most often the symbol translates "You did not use a word proper to this context." Perhaps the student wrote "The cruel child damaged the cat by pulling its tail." or "During the 1920s Bugsy Moran was a renowned gangster." A conscientious student will demand to know what exactly is wrong with those sentences, and, patiently, his or her instructor will explain that the verb damage takes an inanimate object; one can damage a car but one injures a living thing. In the second sentence the field of meaning oígangster does not overlap with that of renowned in a manner suited to this context; notorious adds a connotation to renowned that is more appropriate to any gangster. If students have been taught to follow blindly the dicta of their teachers, they accept such explanations and may even ask what they can do about their diction problem. The instructor gives the standard answer: "Unfortunately there are no simple hard-and-fast rules to follow in using words precisely. Conquering this problem takes time. Train yourselves to look up all unfamiliar words you encounter in your dictionary and use the definitions to discriminate among synonyms you might use in your writing." The advice sounds good but the teacher has fallen into the "authoritarian trap," the traditional view that any dictionary really does have the last say on the spelling, pronunciation, etymology , status, and most importantly, the meaning of a word. Students may find that in their dictionaries, renowned and notorious are listed as synonyms, and they may confront their teacher with thisinformation. If the instructor has taken the time in class to acquaint students and himself with the limitations of dictionaries, the situation will not create a problem. Most people do not read the front matter of their dictionaries, yet this information often makes explicit what a user can and cannot expect from his dictionary. Generally, editors are not as grandiose in their claims for their dictionaries as publishers have shown themselves to be in the past. They often note that words in a dictionary exist in an artificial situation, completely divorced from contexts which may affect meaning considerably. Editors also remind the user that meaning is always changing, that words regularly may undergo the processes of generalization, specialization, amelioration, and pejoration. Finally, editors often mention that words have connotations as well as denotations and that these connotations often govern what word is appropriate in a given context. With knowledge of these facts, lexicographers also recognize that 103 104DONNA I. ARNOLD they are necessarily limited by the projected size of their dictionary and therefore must often give less than a full discussion of the connotations of a word. Editors admit to these limitations, but there are other lexicographic problems which have even more far-reaching implications. In "A Point of Lexicographical Method," Daniel Cook questions the quality of the denotative parts of definitions. He notes that the editors of college-level dictionaries often simply truncate definitions found in an unabridged dictionary, thus altering meaning considerably.1 This common problem of the college-level dictionary must be kept in mind when directing students to a dictionary to combat their diction problem, a problem which is magnified when students consult their dictionaries in order to discriminate synonyms. In his Manual ofLexicography Ladislav Zgusta notes that absolute synonyms are rare because they must be identical in designation (loosely, the denotation), connotation (shades ofmeaning ), and range of application (appropriate context). Rain and drizzle are identical in connotation and application, but differ in designation since the precipitation present in drizzle must be in fine drops. There are numerous lists of connotatively different words. Note the differences in the following: prostitute (no connotation, or a neutral one, educated usage)—loose woman (no connotation, simple language)—harlot (bookish)-whore—tart-drab—bitch—bag (different sorts of expressivity or slang). Stipend (usually applied to a clergyman or teacher) and salary (applied to all other cases) are identical in designation and connotation but differ...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 103-112
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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