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The English language is peculiarly rich in synonyms, as, with such a history, it could not fail to be. From the time of Julius Cæsar, Britons, Romans, Northmen, Saxons, Danes, and Normans fighting, fortifying, and settling upon the soil of England, with Scotch and Irish contending for mastery or existence across the mountain border and the Channel, and all fenced in together by the sea, could not but influence each other's speech. English merchants, sailors, soldiers, and travelers, trading, warring, and exploring in every clime, of necessity brought back new terms of sea and shore, of shop and camp and battle-field. English scholars have studied Greek and Latin for a thousand years, and the languages of the Continent and of the Orient in more recent times. English churchmen have introduced words from Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, through Bible and prayer-book, sermon and tract. From all this it results that there is scarcely a language ever spoken among men that has not some representative in English speech. The spirit of the Anglo-Saxon race, masterful in language as in war and commerce, has subjugated all these various elements to one idiom, naking not a patchwork, but a composite language. Anglo-Saxon thrift, finding often several words that originally expressed the same idea, has detailed them to different parts of the common territory or to different service, so that we have an almost unexampled variety of words, kindred in meaning but distinct in usage, for expressing almost every shade of human thought.
Scarcely any two of such words, commonly known as synonyms, are identical at once in signification and in use. They have certain common ground within which they are interchangeable; but outside of that each has its own special province, within which any other word comes as an intruder. From these two qualities arises the great value of synonyms as contributing to beauty and effectiveness of expression. As interchangeable, they make possible that freedom and variety by which the diction of an accomplished writer or speaker differs from the wooden uniformity of a legal document. As distinct and specific, they enable a master of style to choose in every instance the one term that is the most
perfect mirror of his thought. To write or speak to the best purpose, one should know in the first place all the words from which he may choose, and then the exact reason why in any case any particular word should be chosen. To give such knowledge in these two directions is the office of a book of synonyms.
Of Milton's diction Macaulay writes:
"His poetry acts like an incantation. Its merit lies less in its obvious meaning than in its occult power. There would seem, at first sight, to be no more in his words than in other words. But they are words of enchantment. No sooner are they pronounced, than the past is present and the distant near. New forms of beauty start at once into existence, and all the burial places of the memory give up their dead. Change the structure of the sentence; substitute one synonym for another, and the whole effect is destroyed. The spell loses its power; and he who should then hope to conjure with it would find himself as much mistaken as Cassim in the Arabian tale, when he stood crying, 'Open Wheat,' 'Open Barley,' to the door which obeyed no sound but⚫ Open Sesame.' The miserable failure of Dryden in his attempt to translate into his own diction some parts of the 'Paradise Lost' is a remarkable instance of this."
Macaulay's own writings abound in examples of that exquisite precision in the choice of words, which never seems to be precise, but has all the aspect of absolute freedom. Through his language his thought bursts upon the mind as a landscape is seen instantly, perfectly, and beautifully from a mountain height. A little vagueness of thought, a slight infelicity in the choice of words would be like a cloud upon the mountain, obscuring the scene with a damp and chilling mist. Let anyone try the experiment with a poem like Gray's "Elegy," or Goldsmith's "Traveller" or "Deserted Village,” of substituting other words for those the poet has chosen, and he will readily perceive how much of the charm of the lines depends upon their fine exactitude of expression.
In our own day, when so many are eager to write, and confident that they can write, and when the press is sending forth by the ton that which is called literature, but which somehow lacks the imprint of immortality, it is of the first importance to revive the study of synonyms as a distinct branch of rhetorical culture. Prevalent errors need at times to be noted and corrected, but the teaching of pure English speech is the best defense against all that is inferior, unsuitable, or repulsive. The most effective condemnation of an objectionable word or phrase is that it is not found in scholarly works, and a student who has once learned the rich stores of vigorous, beautiful, exact, and expressive words that make up our noble language, is by that very fact put beyond the reach of all temptation to linguistic corruption.
Special instruction in the use of synonyms is necessary, for the reason that few students possess the analytical power and habit of mind required to hold a succession of separate definitions in thought at once, compare them with each other, and determine just where and how they part company; and the persons least able to do this are the very ones most in need of the information. The distinctions between words similar in meaning are often so fine and elusive as to tax the ingenuity of the accomplished scholar; yet when clearly apprehended they are as important for the purposes of language as the minute differences between similar substances are for the purposes of chemistry. Often definition itself is best secured by the comparison of kindred terms and the pointing out where each differs from the other. We perceive more clearly and remember better what each word is, by perceiving where each divides from another of kindred meaning; just as we see and remember better the situation and contour of adjacent countries, by considering them as boundaries of each other, rather than by an exact statement of the latitude and longitude of each as a separate portion of the earth's surface.
The great mass of untrained speakers and writers need to be reminded, in the first place, that there are synonyms -a suggestion which they would not gain from any precision of separate definitions in a dictionary. The deplorable repetition with which many slightly educated persons use such words as " elegant," "splendid," "" awful,' clever," horrid," etc., to indicate (for they can not be said to express) almost any shade of certain approved or objectionable qualities, shows a limited vocabulary, a poverty of language, which it is of the first importance to correct. Many who are not given to such gross misuse would yet be surprised to learn how often they employ a very limited number of words in the attempt to give utterance to thoughts and feelings so unlike, that what is the right word on one occasion must of necessity be the wrong word at many other times. Such persons are simply unconscious of the fact that there are other words of kindred meaning from which they might choose; as the United States surveyors of Alaska found "the shuddering tenant of the frigid zone" wrapping himself in furs and cowering over a fire of sticks with untouched coal-mines beneath his feet.
Such poverty of language is always accompanied with poverty of thought. One who is content to use the same word for widely different ideas has either never observed or soon comes to forget that there is any difference between the ideas; or perhaps he retains
a vague notion of a difference which he never attempts to define to himself, and dimly hints to others by adding to his inadequate word some such phrase as "you see" or "you know," in the helpless attempt to inject into another mind by suggestion what adequate words would enable him simply and distinctly to say. Such a mind resembles the old maps of Africa in which the interior was filled with cloudy spaces, where modern discovery has revealed great lakes, fertile plains, and mighty rivers. One main office of a book of synonyms is to reveal to such persons the unsuspected riches of their own language; and when a series of words is given them, from which they may choose, then, with intelligent choice of words there comes of necessity a clearer perception of the difference of the ideas that are to be expressed by those different words. Thus, copiousness and clearness of language tend directly to affluence and precision of thought.
Hence there is an important use for mere lists of classified synonyms, like Roget's Thesaurus and the works of Soule and Fallows. Not one in a thousand of average students would ever discover, by independent study of the dictionary, that there are fifteen synonyms for beautiful, twenty-one for beginning, fifteen for benevolence, twenty for friendly, and thirty-seven for pure. The mere mention of such numbers opens vistas of possible fulness, freedom, and variety of utterance, which will have for many persons the effect of a revelation.
But it is equally important to teach that synonyms are not identical and to explain why and how they differ. A person of extensive reading and study, with a fine natural sense of language, will often find all that he wants in the mere list, which recalls to his memory the appropriate word. But for the vast majority there is needed some work that compares or contrasts synonymous words, explains their differences of meaning or usage, and shows in what connections one or the other may be most fitly used. This is the purpose of the present work, to be a guide to selection from the varied treasures of English speech.
This work treats within 375 pages more than 7500 synonyms. It has been the study of the hor to give every definition or distinction in the fewest possible words consistent with clearness of statement, and this not merely for economy of space, but because such condensed statements are most easily apprehended and remembered.
The method followed has been to select from every group of synonyms one word, or two contrasted words, the meaning of which