Friday, July 28, 2006

July 28: Near-Synonym Day

Today is the anniversary of the debut of the first cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny. On July 28, 1940 Warner Brothers released the animated short A Wild Hare in technicolor. The cartoon did not identify Bugs by name -- that would come later -- but it did premier his catchphrase "What's up Doc?" and his nemesis Elmer Fudd (1).

Coincidentally, it is also the birthday of Beatrix Potter, born in London in 1866.

Potter had few playmates as a child, but she did have a menagerie of pets that included a tortoise, a frog, a snake, and a rabbit. A shy, quiet girl, Potter sketched, painted, and kept a journal in which she wrote in a secret code she invented. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was published in 1902. She published numerous other animal tales, but Peter Rabbit remains the most popular (2).

All this talk about rabbits begs the question: what is the difference between a rabbit and a hare? Well, according to Bernice Randall's book When is a Pig a Hog?, a hare is larger than a rabbit, with longer ears and legs; another difference is that hares live in the open, among rocks and thickets, while rabbits live in burrows.

Many words in English feature these kinds of fine distinctions, especially since English has more synonyms than any other language. This expansive lexicon is a blessing for writers, but it also demands attention to detail, since there are very few truly synonymous words -- that is words that can be use interchangeable regardless of context.

For example, the words lectern and podium appear to have no significant difference in meaning, but subtle distinctions in each word's definition make them near-synonyms rather than true synonyms. A lectern refers to a stand that a speaker might use for holding notes, but it also refers to a slanted-top reading desk in a church from which the scriptures are read. Like lectern, podium is used for a speaker's stand, but it also refers to a low platform upon which a speaker or conductor might stand.

Today's Challenge: The Tortoise and the Hare or The Turtle and the Rabbit?

In English there is a literal menagerie of near-synonyms. Read the definitions below from When Is a Pig a Hog? See if you can identify which of the two animals listed fits the definition most closely.

1. This domesticated member of the camel family is prized for its long, silky brown or black wool. Llama or Alpaca?

2. A domesticated ass. Donkey or Mule?

3. An immature swine weighing less than 120 pounds. Pig or Hog?

4. A torpedo-shaped, small-toothed whale with a blunt snout. Dolphin or Porpoise?

5. A leaping amphibian with smooth and moist skin, able to live on either land or water. Frog or Toad?

6. A reptile with a soft body and hard shell that lives in the water, expecially the sea. Turtle or Tortoise?

7. A large, flesh-eating lizardlike reptile that is more aggressive than its counterpart; it also has a longer and more pointed snout, and its closed mouth shows teeth. Alligator or Crocodile?

8. An amphibian, not a reptile, with soft, moist skin and no claws. Lizard or Salamander? (3)

Quote of the Day:

Q: What’s the difference between a fanatic and a zealot?

A: A zealot can’t change his mind. A fanatic can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. --Winston Churchill

Answers: 1. Alpaca 2. Donkey 3. Pig 4. Porpoise 5. Frog 6. Turtle 7. Crocodile 8. Salamander

1 - Hunter, Matthew. "The Old Grey Hare: A History of Bugs Bunny."


3 - Randall, Bernice. When Is a Pig a Hog?: A Guide to Confoundingly Related English Words. New York: Galahad Books, 1991.

1 comment:

Neel Mehta said...

2. A domesticated ass. Donkey or Mule?