Antonym has no antonym
…and may not be a word either.
Merriam-Webster asserts that a synonym is “a word having the same meaning as another word”. On reading this, immediately I thought I could be carrying around far too many words, like excess baggage. For instance, I could give up love in favor of attachment, a word I need to keep for other applications anyway. “Honey, I’m really attached to you,” I’d say, something every attaché longs to hear. In fairness to Merriam, the entire definition is rather long and does mention subtleties and connotations, but the gist is: these words are substantially the same as that word.
Mother always said, “We don’t hate.” Oh yes, I thought, we do, but I learned to keep my mouth shut back then. I lacked vocabulary. Had I known that I could abhor divorce, loathe mother’s new thieving husband, detest daddy’s cult-worshiping girlfriend, and execrate that delinquent who spat at me on the school bus – all without violating her dictum – I could’ve expressed myself and avoided the spankings. Because all those words were supposed to mean the same thing. Because I swallowed what they fed me about synonyms. Because I knew no better.
Nearly thirty years later, with one divorce under my belt, I no longer have the requisite energy to hate, but I do despise beef tongue. It occurs to me these days that the phrase I most commonly hear in any argument is, “That’s not what I mean.” Whereupon, the speaker will choose better words to get across what he does mean. I say to myself, had you done that to begin with, you might not be in an argument. As a result, I’ve lost my faith in synonyms. I say faith because I mean faith. It’s not that I now think the definition of synonym is incorrect. I think the thing doesn’t exist and never did. Merriam claims that, including love, I can choose among five suitable terms for the way a mother feels about her child. That confounds me. Would that my mother were here to argue otherwise, as I am certain there was but one word that bound us.
A friend told me once that she needed a dictionary on hand to understand me sometimes. I told her to be careful with that book.
“Why?” she wondered.
“Because irregardless is in there and that just isn’t a word.”
I took her hint, though, and I gave it serious consideration. Were I to use more common words, people might better understand what I say, but they would not know what I mean; this I accept. If our words are interchangeable, the language of Shakespeare and Hemingway is redundant and stupid – as opposed to windy and hammerheaded, which, in certain hands, it can still be; this I hold. What’s more, if I’m robbed of precision in my language, I might as well grunt; this I believe. By the way, according to the Merriam-Webster thesaurus, synonym has no synonym. How pompous.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.