It’s time today to celebrate the meaning of words. That’s because January 18 is National Thesaurus Day. The author of the popular Roget’s Thesaurus, Peter Mark Roget, was born this day in 1779 in London, England. A physician, scientist and lover of lists, Roget at 26 wrote a book that has become synonymous with finding synonyms.
Today, most of us use an online thesaurus to find synonyms and discover new words so we can express ourselves with more precision, flair or relevance to an audience. But synonyms can sometimes lead us astray. Different words with ‘almost the same’ meaning are not always interchangeable, and many people – including lawyers, marketers, wordsmiths and journalists – misuse words in this way. This matters to more than just word nerds when the differences go beyond ‘simply semantics’.
Take the common use of reticent in place of reluctant. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, reticent describes a person who’s disinclined to speak out, reserved in speech or muted. A reluctant person is unwilling to do or be something. So although you could describe a company as reluctant, it would be strange to call it reticent. But type reticent into Wikipedia and you’ll see how freely it’s substituted for reluctant.
Merriam-Webster’s website points out that reticent became synonymous with reluctant years ago, when people started using it in the context of speech – such as, “he was reticent to talk about his past”. And its application to actions as well as to speech has further severed the word from its Latin origin, reticere, which means ‘to keep silent’. Dot Wordsworth at The Spectator recently lamented that the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010 slipped in a new entry for reticent as “reluctant to perform a particular action”. She suspects that tacit similarly became synonymous with silent because of the unspoken element of being implicit.
Examples like this show how the meaning of words can change over time. Something similar happened to Roget’s Thesaurus. He originally intended it primarily as a tool for classifying ideas expressible as words, rather than as a compendium of synonyms, according to Syracuse University School of Information researchers Elizabeth D. Liddy, Carol A. Hert and Philip Dory, authors of Roget’s International Thesaurus: Conceptual Issues and Potential Applications.
Roget was among the leading Victorian-era natural history scientists who championed the classification of plants and animals. In 1805, he set out to develop a taxonomy to classify ideas based on six major divisions: abstract relations, space, matter, intellect, volition and affections. He used these in the first edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, published in 1852.
Roget wanted writers to consult his thesaurus when they had an idea and were looking for the words that most aptly expressed that idea. But the thesaurus evolved into a synonym finder after Roget decided to add an alphabetic index at the back of the book. This illustrates how authors can lose control of their intended meaning after their works are published.
Even though language and meaning evolve, we can all take care when choosing one of two similar words for a given sentence. By giving a little thought to nuance, we can express our thoughts with greater precision and less ambiguity. These distinctions matter. And they’re important to any business that needs to accurately describe a property or capability of a product or service.
For example, allow and enable are commonly used to describe technology products. Allow means to give someone permission to do something. Enable means helping someone or something be able to do something by way of a useful tool or by removing a barrier to an action. You can see the different nuances here: “You are allowed to enter the library and use the computer for research” versus “Using the library’s computer enabled you to quickly find the right information.”
Another commonly misused set of words are which and that. It helps to understand clauses – or additional bits of information in a sentence – to know when to use which or that. If a given clause is not essential for a sentence to make sense, use which. If the clause is essential for a sentence to make sense, use that. For example:
“The higher cost of cyberattacks, which include ransomware, has forced many businesses to invest in better cybersecurity.”
“The higher cost of cyberattacks that include ransomware has forced many businesses to invest in better cybersecurity.”
Using which or that also changes the meaning of the sentence. In the first example, the higher cost of all cyberattacks has caused a change in behavior. In the second example, only the higher cost of ransomware attacks has changed business behavior. My Collective Content colleague, senior editor Shirley Siluk, explores the correct use of which and that in more detail in this blog post.
Yet another common misuse of synonymous words is refute and reject. What’s the difference? To refute someone necessitates proving that someone’s idea or claim is wrong. Without any effort to prove a point, you can reject an idea, which means you refuse to accept it.
Language is a living system for the exchange of meaning and ideas, so it can pay to have a pulse on the current state. Not even the tools we use to explore language are immune to evolution!