Daniel Kahneman

Is “Huge” bigger than “Massive”?

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One of my friends at work  (and by friend I mean annoying colleague) gave me some advice about writing the other day. He basically said that good writing didn’t repeat the same word over and over again when referring to the same thing. It was better to trawl through a thesaurus for another word that had a similar meaning, rather than repeat one he’d used before.

For example:

The sailor gazed up at the colossal ship. He watched the mariners aboard the gigantic vessel, busying themselves with seafaring duties. The enormous craft’s massive masts soared high above them, immense sails, huge against the midday sun.

I have resisted the urge to punch his face until now, but I can feel my ire stirring again.

Stephen King says in his book On Writing that the aspiring writer should never use a thesaurus. Ever. I may be misquoting him, but I think he means that your writing should flow from your own personal font of words, not contaminated by someone else’s subjective list.

Sometimes I (to my eternal shame and probable literary damnation) do use a thesaurus. It occasionally gives me the inspiration I need when I’m searching for just the right word or phrase to express my exact meaning.

But it  has to be used wisely.

Go to thesaurus.com and look up Majestic. You’ll find a marvellous list of synonyms from august to superb. Click on Lofty and you’ll link through to another list containing Tall. Click that to find Lanky. And that to find Meagre.

So, Majestic sort of means Lofty, which sort of means Tall which sort of means Lanky which sort of means Meagre.

How can this be? How can a word sort of mean something that sort of means its opposite?

Well, the answer is that most thesauruses (thesauri?) are completely context-free. Or, to put it another way, they are only one-dimensional.

“A one-dimensional thesaurus?” I hear you say. “Have you gone completely bonkers? Are you suggesting that we should have a two-dimensional one?”

Well, sort of. Perhaps a multi-dimensional thesaurus would be more appropriate. Or better still, because it sounds more scientific and less science fictiony, an n-vectored thesaurus.

“I give up.” You say. ” I’m a writer, not a nerd and this is changing into a geekfest.”

“Don’t go!” I plead. “I promise not to use n-vectored again.”

What I’m trying to say is that a thesaurus doesn’t understand the context of the word you’re looking up.

I’m not only talking about the fact that words can have many different meanings. In the sentence “Time flies like an arrow while fruit flies like a banana”, both “flies” and “like” mean two different things. “Like” means both “similar to” and “enjoy”; “flies” means both “the act of flying” and “those pesky, six-legged things that do the flying thing”.

What I want to draw attention to is the fact that to an adept reader most words convey more information than merely their defined meaning.

Mary stood, unaccompanied, at the orphanage door.

To me, there is little to infer from “unaccompanied” other than the fact that she’s the only person there. It’s a very matter-of-fact word that seems to hold very little emotion.

Mary stood, alone, at the orphanage door.

Now we start to get subjective. I think there is slightly more pathos in this sentence. She’s not milking the scene, but alone probably pulls on the reader’s own memories of feeling alone rather than being unaccompanied.

Mary stood, forlorn, at the orphanage door.

Now, forlorn’s main dictionary definition is “desolate or dreary” and so the reader is forced to assume that while Mary might be on her own, she is definitely sad. And this is what I mean by vectors of meaning. Forlorn has (at least) two in this context. “Desolate and dreary” and “Unaccompanied”

Mary stood, forsaken, at the orphanage door.

This implies someone has left her alone there, which adds a third vector. I would also read a level of sadness into it too. But is it less sad, or more sad than “forlorn”? What is the sadness vector’s magnitude?

This is a hugely subjective question that probably depends on all sorts of factors: what you’ve read, where you were brought up, general outlook on life. It could even be that you’ve seen one specific usage of that word that struck a particular chord with you. But the point is, changing one word for another that sort of means the same thing can change the emotional context of your writing.

It gets worse too.

Mary stood, isolated, at the orphanage door.

In this case Mary could be surrounded by people, but distinct from them for some reason.

All these words are synonyms for alone on thesaurus.com and each one serves a different, specific purpose.

So, beware!

I was listening to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs where the guest was Daniel Kahneman  He’s obviously a hugely intelligent chap, and he chose a thesaurus as the other book he would take to the island. The reason he gave was to play a game with it to while away those endless castaway days. And the game was to identify the differences between the words put forward as synonyms for each entry…