Semantic Antics

April 13, 2021 Category: Miscellaneous

A Lexical Cornucopia:

As Orwell reminded us in the dystopian future of his novel, “1984”, it is difficult to fully exercise free speech with an impoverished vernacular.  Wittgenstein rightfully noted that the bounds of our language are the bounds of our world.  Insofar as our lexical domain is constrained, so, then, are our horizons for speculation.

Such constraints also impose a handicap on our capacity to apprehend and express.  The Koran furnishes votaries with a very limited vocabulary–the only compliment of linguistic tools, they are given to believe, that they shall ever need to grasp life, the universe, and everything.  Insofar as one is behooved to articulate all things in just those terms, one’s thinking can’t help but be drastically circumscribed.

Take, for instance, the ubiquitous–nay, incessant–usage in Urdu of “Insh-allah” (from the Arabic for “god willing”).  This is engendered by–and, in turn, engenders–a mentality, whereby one’s control over one’s own destiny (“qadar”) is removed from the equation (to wit: one’s say in the trajectory of one’s own life).  Consequently, Urdu does not have modals for hypotheticals like “could”, “would”, and “should”.  In Urdu, the only word to convey possibility is “shayad”, which has more to do with what MIGHT happen (as in the sort of “maybe”), still resigning the course of things to god’s will.

This is a reminder that, insofar as one’s vocabulary is limited, critical inquiry is stunted.

The next time someone who fetishizes [insert language here] decides to rhapsodize about how many different ways one can articulate something in said language, ask him to compare the size of that language’s thesaurus with the size of an English thesaurus.  Then ask him to mosey on over, meander on over, roam on over, stroll on over, amble on over, sally on over, sidle on over, step on over, canter on over, waltz on over, wander on over, and–if there’s still time–saunter on over.  That’s a dozen different ways to say, “walk casually” (oops, make that 13).

That’s not to be confused with romp / rollick / rove / jog / dawdle / march / straggle / ramble / shamble / shuffle / scuffle / scuttle / scutter / scoot / stalk / stamp / stomp / tromp / tramp / traipse / trounce / [teeter-]totter / trudge / trot / trod / plod / hop / hobble / gad / galumph / gambol / glissade / frolic / flounder / flit.

Slightly modify some of these terms, and the meaning changes.  Append “ch” to “scoot”, and it means to move by shimmying.  Append “-scotch” to “hop” and one is doing it in a pattern.  Append “-se” to “tromp” and it has more oomph.  Append “-le” to “tramp” and it insinuates that damage has been done.  Take “-le” away from “scuffle”, and it involves dragging one’s feet. (That’s forty MORE ways to say “perambulate” / “peregrinate” by the way.  Oops; make that 42 more.)

Then there’s lumbering and clambering.  There’s also sashaying, prancing, and flouncing for those who feel festive.  We can wend our way over…and even stray.  Move quickly, you say?  Well, then run, race, lope, lunge, bound, bolt, hustle, dart, dash, spring, sprint, scurry, scamper, skit[ter], hop, hoof it, book it, and haul ass.  Then there’s flee, jet, skedaddle, scram, vamoose, split, shoo, steal away, get lost, take a hike, make tracks, take flight, hightail it, get a move-on, and make a break for it.  (That’s forty MORE.)  But whatever you do, don’t tarry / lag / lolly-gag / [ma]linger / loiter / [a]bide / alight / straggle / [dilly-]dally / [diddle-]dawdle.

This many ways to say “be on your way” and “move your butt” (using your legs) reflects the remarkable versatility of the English language.  Its vast assortment of lexical capabilities is breathtaking to contemplate.  If something so simple as “go over there on foot” can be expressed in so many different ways, one can imagine that the potential for articulating more profound things is virtually limitless.

And so it goes: We can go skylarking or galavanting, carousing or parading, prowling or lurking, jaunting or promenading.  We might even weave our way over.  If distraught, we might mope or skulk.  If listless, we might putter or potter.  If confused, we might stravage.  If sneaky, we might slink.  If proud, we strut.  If awkward, we might waddle.  If gleeful, we might skip.  If flamboyant, we might flounce.  If injured, we might limp.  If restless, we might mill.  If we’re being quiet, me might tip-toe.  If we have four legs, we might gallop.  If we’re in a meadow, we might graze.  If we’re lazy, we might slog.  If we’re tentative, we might malinger.  If we’re drunk, we might stagger…or stammer…or stumble.  If we’re panicked, we might scramble.  If we’re feeling festive, we might carouse.  If playful, we might gallivant.  Shall we also discuss the carriage one has during peregrination?  Or the pace at which one paces?  How about the stride of one’s stride?  The lexical possibilities are endless.  (That makes 130, by the way.)

Can any other language do this?  Aside from intoning the kind of gait one has during bipedal locomotion (zoinks, there’s another one!), English offers a resplendent buffet of options for almost every concept imaginable.

One way to ascertain the nuances in a language is to survey the scope of quasi-synonyms.  A concavity in the landscape, you say?  You mean a valley?  Or perhaps it was a vale…or a swale?  Or a ditch, a dale, or a dell?  Or even a gap, a gulch, a gully, a grove, a gorge, or a glen?  Or maybe even a fen?  Nope.  Turns out it was a canyon…not to be confused with a ravine or a basin or a coulee or a notch…or a chasm or a fissure.….or an arroyo, a canal, a channel, a culvert, a trench, and a ditch.  For lexical versatility, it’s not merely the size of the dictionary; it’s the size of the thesaurus.

Want nuance?  Is there a distinction to be made between quibbling and squabbling?  Botching, bungling, and blundering?  Shall we consider the difference between beguilement, bewilderment, befuddlement, and bafflement? Welcome to the stupendously vast English lexicon.  No other language has such a vast assortment of options for articulating nuance.

What’s the difference between crotchety, cranky, crabby, grumpy, and grouchy?  What’s the difference between peace, placidity, tranquility, and serenity? What’s the difference between flicker, shimmer, glimmer, and glisten? What’s the difference between putrescent, putrid, fetid, acrid, and rancid? What’s the difference between cuddle and snuggle, hoist and foist, wipe and swipe, poke and prod, squish and squash, whirl and twirl, wack and smack?  Is there a distinction to be made between smash, mash, mush, and smoosh? Blur and blend? Smudge and smear? Use and utilize? Is it a fracas or a ruckus?  Is it pandemonium, bedlam, or mayhem?  Is one being adventuresome or adventurous? Exploratory or explorative?  There’s whirl and swirl and twirl.  There’s grasp and grab and clutch and cling and clench.

Linguistically, there are different shades of the same color.  What’s the difference between a hullabaloo, an imbroglio, and a fiasco?  (Is it just a predicament or is it more of a kerfuffle?)  What’s the difference between a catastrophe, a cataclysm, and a calamity?  (Is it more like a disaster or a debacle?)

Having at one’s disposal many terms for the same kind of thing has lots of hermeneutic–nay, literary–utility. But having many connotations for a single term can lead to confusion. Let’s look at the lexical multi-valence of one final term.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6

CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 - 2010-2019 -
Developed by Malagueta/Br
Note to readers: Those reading these long-form essays will be much better-off using a larger screen (not a hand-held device) for displaying the text. Due to the length of most pieces on our site, a lap-top, desk-top, or large tablet is strongly recommended.


Download as PDF