>Over the holidays, an adorable little person in my life asked me an interesting question: “Why are there so many words that all mean the same thing?”
It’s difficult to explain to a young child about nuance, emphasis, etymology, colloquial and formal use, and regional dialect. But his question fascinated me and made me think about the way I (and others) use words. About how I agonize over individual phrases in a manuscript, determined to use the best possible combination of words to express not just the meaning I want to impart, but the tone.
As a writer, it’s my responsibility not to settle for just words that “will do.” If I have to say the phrase, “They’ll know what I mean,” I know I’m not doing my job. Not expressing myself to the best of my ability. Instead of relying on my own communication skills, I’m relying on the reader to guess my intent. And that’s doing both the reader and my work a disservice. It’s implying that nothing beyond the one-dimensional meaning of the words is important, and unless you’re writing technical instructions, that’s rarely the case.
So I told this lethally cute little bundle of curiosity the truth, as best I could. I told him that words have power, and the more of them we know how to use, the more power we have. I told him that we were lucky to speak a language with so many synonyms because the more ways there are to say something, the more clearly we’re able to express what we’re thinking.
“Imagine if the word ‘big’ had no synonyms,” I said. “If that were the case, you could tell me you were reading a big book, but I’d have no idea how big that book really is. It could be big compared to a Little Golden Book. Or it could be big compared to Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows.”
“But Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows is huge!” the child said, and I nodded.
“Some might even call it gigantic, or enormous. Big doesn’t quite seem to cover it, huh?”
The child smiled at me, then promptly lost interest in the conversation. But I didn’t. And I’m kind of hoping that maybe—just maybe—I’ve created one more budding logophile.