Anonymous asked in Education & ReferenceWords & Wordplay · 3 years ago

Why do words have so many synonyms that practiculy mean the same thing, what's the point in using long words to group small words?

1 Answer

  • 3 years ago
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    Some languages, such as English, come from many sources: French, German, Viking, Saxon, Jute, Latin, Greek, Indian ... and more. In some cases there are equivalent words from multiple sources. Before the advent of long distance travel or mass communications, language could be quite localised with words depending on whatever the local influences were. Once we started being able to move around the country and the world, we began to share more words, sometimes finding there were already equivalent words or, other times, grabbing useful words for which we didn't already have one (e.g. bungalow). As long as the words were understood, they remained perfectly useful words.

    There are synonyms (words that mean exactly the same) but, equally, there are words that can by used synonymously that can have subtly different meanings (e.g big, large, huge, massive, vast, voluminous)

    We sometimes use a long word where is has the same meaning as many shorter words because it encapsulates the whole idea neatly. Such a word is 'synonym'. Think of a word like 'category': How many short words does it take to say the same thing as precisely? How about a words like 'econometrics'? Could you write that in short words to convey the same meaning and, if so, how many words would it requires to give the full meaning? What if you had to insert all those words into the middle of a sentence to take the place of 'econometrics', would it work? Try a more common word like 'evolution'.

    OK, so those aren't very big words. There is nothing wrong with big words. They are a kind of 'short-hand version of big ideas' but they are only useful between people who know the big word and who understand what those big ideas are. Big words are sometimes specific to specialist subjects like medicine or space exploration or any kind of academic analysis. People who do not understand those fields may not understand the related big words.

    That brings us to the purpose of language. Language is about communication - the transfer of ideas or information from one person to one or more others. If the other person does not understand the big word, there is no effective communication. The language has to be appropriate for our intended audience.

    Anyone trying to communicate has to make assumptions about the literacy and comprehension skills of the intended audience. In face-to-face communication, the speaker can look for verbal or non-verbal feedback to check comprehension and change the delivery accordingly. In written communication, no such feedback loop exists. In speech, we can reword sentences on-the-fly. In written material we can't.

    We have to assume the intelligence of the reader. To talk down to them would be insulting and wasteful of time. To talk over their heads would fail to communicate effectively.

    Big words do a big job. That is why they are useful.

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