Looking for the Best Word? Tip #32

Word cloud via ProWritingAid.com

Help here for writers, making their work more accessible, interesting, varied, accurate and effective by exploring similar and dissimilar words. The series also allows language learners some insights into the peculiarities of the English language.

A good thesaurus provides alternatives for the idea of a word, but not all are true synonyms: context matters. Placing synonyms into a sentence to test whether they make sense is one way of checking suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is essential.

My dictionary of choice is the two-volume Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. And I use the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus for word selection. But I’ve also installed WordWeb on my computer for those times when the apposite word evades me and I’m in a hurry.

Similarly, I’ve now downloaded a Kindle book to my Mac to consult whilst editing my fiction. It’s a new work, ‘The Writer’s Lexicon’ by Kathy Steinemann. You’ll find my review of this handy book if you click this link.

However, I generally try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when an appropriate term eludes me, live on the reference shelves behind me.

So, to this week’s words: Xenophilia, Xenophobia

Xenophobia – Roget lists these headers: prejudice, phobia, dislike, and hatred. Under the sub-heading ‘prejudice’ are another (55) substitutes including partiality, bias, blind spot, clannishness, chauvinism, my country right or wrong, racism, and intolerance.

xenophilia- Roget doesn’t list ‘xenophilia’ but lists ‘xenophile’ and gives this header: xenophile. Under the sub-heading ‘xenophile’ are another (6) alternatives, including Anglophile, Francophile, Russophile, Sinophile, friend of all the world, and philanthropist.

These two words, definite antonyms, are each made up from two roots, one of which they share. ‘Xeno’ is from the Greek, ‘xenos’, meaning ‘stranger’, ‘guest’, ‘foreigner’ – a neutral, non-threatening stem. ‘Philia’ comes from the Greek for ‘friendship’, ‘fondness’ – a very positive suffix. ‘Phobia’ is a suffix that originates from the Greek ‘phobos’ forming abstract nouns denoting (esp. irrational) fear, dislike, antipathy – a singularly negative suffix.

I’ve been presenting these word choices in more or less alphabetic order and today was the turn of the much ignored ‘x’. It struck me that we’re living through times of extraordinary prejudice and racial tension. The recent UK decision to leave the European Union was largely driven by a fear of ‘excessive’ immigration into the country by citizens of the EU; a fear readily exaggerated and abused by certain politicians. In the USA, Donald Trump was elected the new President largely on a platform based on keeping America for the Americans, building on an ignorant perception of emigrants as a threat to that society. It therefore seemed timely to examine the words we use to express the idea of ‘foreigners’ along with our emotional responses to that idea.

There are societies, states, religions and organisations that represent both sides of this phenomenon: some are very welcoming of the foreigner to their shores, some are fearful, anxious and accusatory regarding any influx from beyond their shores or any other defined boundary. There are, of course, valid arguments on both sides of this discussion. However, when ignorance, irrationality and prejudice guide people, the result can be unjust hatred culminating in violence and death. So, an investigation of the way we use such terms seems appropriate.

Let’s look at usage for xenophobia.

‘It’s astoundingly easy for those with an agenda aimed at disrupting society for their own ends to instil a profound xenophobia in the minds of less educated followers, stoking hatred and irrational fear to divert attention from the real issues of the day.’

In this rather long sentence we can substitute almost any of the above suggestions for ‘xenophobia’ without changing the meaning of the sentence. Only the use of ‘blind spot’ and ‘my country right or wrong’ would require a slight restructuring of the sentence to arrive at the same meaning.

Now let’s look at usage for xenophilia.

‘There are those amongst the intelligentsia who espouse xenophilia as a philosophy of inclusion, often ignoring the very real fears felt by those individuals most likely to be affected by a large influx of people from other lands and cultures.’

Of course, there is no direct synonym for ‘xenophilia’, but the use of the phrase ‘friend of all the world’ could be substituted easily, if the sentence were to be altered to accommodate it. The meaning would be essentially the same.

I leave to your judgment which side of the argument you take, of course and, indeed, whether you take a side at all.

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 great group page on Facebook, which you can find through this link.

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