Sameness and Difference

It seems probable, and many semanticists have maintained, that natural languages abhor absolute synonyms just as nature abhors a vacuum.” D. A. Cruse

In my last blog essay, I defined “girl” as something that could be considered as comprised of the set of semantic features ([+human], [-male], [-mature]). I went on to suggest that other words that have the same set of semantic features would constitute synonyms for “girl.”

Now the thesaurus at lists the following entries as synonyms of “girl”:

babe, baby doll, bird, blonde, bobby-soxer, boytoy, broad, butterfly, canary, chick, coed, cupcake, cutie, dame, damsel, daughter, deb, debutante, doll, female, filly, gal, jail bait, lady, lassie, mademoiselle, maid, maiden, minx, miss, missy, mouse, nymph, nymphet, piece, queen, schoolgirl, she, sis, skirt, spring chicken, teenybopper, tomato, tomboy, virgin, wench, witch, woman

Just how many of these words are really synonyms, according to our technical definition? Many of these words are disqualified as synonyms because they differ according to the feature [-mature]. They may either be unmarked for this feature, as in the case of “female” and “she,” which are technical superordinates of “girl,” or they may be positively specified for the feature, in which case they would be antonyms (!) These include the following:

dame, gal, lady, and woman

So a first important lesson to be gleaned here is that relatedness does not mean synonymy. There are also many items in the thesaurus listing that contain additional semantic features distinct from ‘girl,’ yet without all the features constituting “girl,” making them technical overlaps . . .

Blonde, daughter, maid, queen, sis, virgin, and witch

or, in the case of words having all the features of ‘girl’ and then some, hyponyms . . .

bobby-soxer, cutie, deb, debutante, schoolgirl, tomboy, and teenybopper

Items in the list like the following appear to suggest sexual maturity, but not necessarily full social and intellectual maturity, and pose a challenge to our system of features.

Babe, baby doll, broad, coed, piece, and skirt

From these examples, it looks like the feature [mature] itself should be broken down further, if we are looking for the basic semantic building blocks of language in these semantic features.

Many of the words remaining on the short list of potential synonyms for “girl” are obvious metaphorical usages of words that have quite divergent meanings. If we understand metaphors as words which by definition violate a semantic feature, then we can eliminate the following:

bird, boytoy, butterfly, canary, cupcake, filly, jailbait, minx, mouse, nymph, nymphet, spring chicken, tomato.

We are left with the following ‘pure’ synomyms (I leave it to you to check whether they ‘cognitive synonyms’ according to Cruse’s definition):

Damsel, lassie, mademoiselle, maiden, miss, and missy

Saying that these words ‘mean the same thing’ or ‘have the same semantic features’ or are ‘synonymous,’ does not mean that they are interchangeable, can occur in the same contexts, or are exactly alike. That is because word meaning is only one ingredient in any instance of language use. Critically, in addition to meanings of words, there are speakers of words and referents for words. A speaker who refers to a girl as a ‘mademoiselle’ is saying something about his own social affliliations, quite apart from the meaning of ‘girl.’ Likewise, words occur in situations, which are always nuanced. So I can use “miss” to get a girl’s attention (maybe a young sales clerk at a store), where the use of ‘girl’ could perform the same function but with less politeness. “Damsel” is conceivable only in a somewhat archaic, poetic context. (Cruse would say that is has a very different “field” of usage), and “lassie” may say something about both the regional, dialectal affiliations of a speaker as well as something about the closeness of feeling the speaker has for the referent.

Recognizing that a language event is more than word ‘meaning,’ but also people interacting in a variety of relationships and with a variety of social affiliations and communicating in a variety of forms helps us to understand how there can be a significant amount of synonymy, while at the same time no two words are truly alike.