Looking for the Best Word? Tip #21

Word cloud via Prowritingaid.com

Considering the date, perhaps I should look at usage for triskaidekaphobia? But I suspect everyone now knows it simply means a morbid fear of the number 13.

This series offers writers help to make their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words. It also gives language learners some insights into the peculiarities of English.

A good thesaurus provides substitutes for the idea of a word, but not all suggestions are true synonyms. Context is vital. Placing alternative words in the same sentence to see whether they actually make sense is one way of checking suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is essential.

I prefer the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus for word selection. And my dictionary of choice is the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. But I try to dig the best word from my overcrowded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when the appropriate term escapes me, sit on the reference shelf behind me.

So, to this week’s words: Jocular/Serious

These two words can operate as antonyms and it’s in that capacity I’m examining them.

Jocular – Roget lists these headers: merry, witty. Under the sub-heading ‘witty’ are another 49 alternatives, including pointed, smart, risqué, sarcastic, unserious, waggish, comic and droll.

Serious – Roget lists these headers: great, attentive, wise, resolute, intending, important, dangerous, serious, dull, heinous. Under the sub-heading ‘serious’ are a further 45 alternatives, including sober, solemn, Puritanical, frowning, sullen, straight-faced, humourless, dull and chastening.

Let’s look at usage for ‘jocular’.

‘Donald had a jocular style of argument that often caused his fellow debaters to be confused.’

Here, we could substitute ‘unserious’, ‘waggish’, ‘comic’, ‘sarcastic’ or ‘droll’ for ‘jocular’. But substituting ‘smart’ would add an element of confusion to the sentence, making it unclear whether Donald’s style was deliberate or merely down to his lack of understanding. If ‘risqué’ were to be substituted, the reader would be left believing that Donald’s style of argument contained unsavoury elements. The choice of synonym really does influence how the sentence is understood.

Let’s examine how we might use ‘serious’.

‘Jane was always serious in her delivery of the realities, so that her students would understand how important these facts were.’

In this sentence, we could substitute ‘sober’ and ‘solemn’ for ‘serious’. But using any of the other synonyms listed above would cause the reader to think differently about Jane’s stance and her reasons for making her delivery. Using, for example, ‘frowning’, might suggest her disagreement with the facts. If ‘Puritanical’ were substituted, the reader could believe that prejudice and dogma had informed Jane’s definition of reality and that her ‘facts’ were actually no more than beliefs. Again, the choice of the synonym will impact substantially on how the sentence is understood.

Antonyms can be difficult to discover and thesauruses generally fail to give examples. When utterly lost for such an opposite, I grab ‘The New Nuttall Dictionary of English Synonyms and Antonyms’ published 1986, which generally resolves my dilemma. I’m sure other such volumes are readily available.

For language learners, there’s a particularly useful group page on Facebook, which you can access via this link.

I welcome observations and suggestions here. Please use the comments section below for your ideas and thoughts.