Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 18: Semantics Day

Today is the birthday of S.I. Hayakawa who was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 1906.

Professor Hayakawa was best known for his book Language in Thought and Action (1949). This book, now in its fifth edition, is one of the best known books on linguistics and specifically semantics: the study of the meaning of words and language.

Hayakawa taught English and Semantics at the University of Chicago and then at San Francisco State College, where he eventually became president in 1968.

His name hit the headlines when he disrupted a student anti-war demonstration in 1968, pulling the plug on an outdoor sound system. He was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican in 1976 and served one term until 1983.

Hayakawa's most famous act as a senator came in 1981 when he became the first politician to introduce a bill proposing that English become the official language of the United States.

After leaving office, Hayakawa founded U.S. English in 1983. U.S. English, Inc. lives on today. It's mission, according to its web site, is "preserving the unifying role of the English in the United States" (1).

Regardless of your position on "English as the official language of the U.S." debate, Hayakawa's writing about synonyms and word choice is instructive. In his introduction to his book Use the Right Word, Hayakawa encapsulates the history of polyglot English. A history that has given English more words than any other language and which has created an "embarrassment of riches" for the writer. Hayakawa challenges readers and writers to pay careful attention to words and especially to synonyms. He says that although we have many synonyms to choose from, there are "no exact synonyms." When using words in context there are subtle shades of meaning in every words. Denotations may be the same but connotations are different. Similarly words have different levels of abstraction. The word teach for example is more general in meaning than the word indoctrinate which is more specific.

The following paragraph contains more explanation and examples of Hayakawa's plea for attention to semantic details:

It can be argued that there really are not exact synonyms -- no exact equivalences of meaning. Such a position can be upheld if by 'meaning' we refer to the total range of contexts in which a word may be used. Certainly there are no two words that are interchangeable in all the contexts in which either might appear. But within a given context, there is often exact synonymy: I "mislaid" my wallet; I "misplaced" my wallet. In a slightly different context, however, the two words are not interchangeable: it would not be idiomatic to say, I "mislaid" my suitcase --all of which may suggest that while "misplace" is applicable to both small objects and large, "mislay" applies only to small. Also, one may suffer disappointment because of "misplaced," but never "mislaid," trust. This example shows again that words which are synonymous in one of their meanings may differ considerably in their other meanings (2).

Today's Challenge: Same Difference
Each group of three words below contains two synonyms and one antonym. See if you can identify the antonym. Then, see if you can identify the subtle differences between the remaining two synonyms.

1. sagacious ludicrous farcical

2. amateur connoisseur dilettante

3. plaudit acclaim censure

4. timidity savoir faire aplomb

5. benediction anathema curse

6. cursory superficial painstaking

7. tawdry garish modest

8. immutable fixed temporary

9. explicit cryptic arcane

10. prodigal spendthrift frugal

Quote of the Day: In a real sense, people who have read good literature have lived more than people who cannot or will not read. It is not true that we have only one life to live; if we can read, we can live as many more lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish. --S. I. Hayakawa

Answers: 1. sagacious 2. connoisseur 3. censure 4. timidity
5. benediction 6. painstaking 7. modest 8. temporary 9. explicit
10. frugal

1- U.S English, Inc.

2 -Use The Right Word: A Modern Guide to Synonyms. (Edited by S. I. Hayakawa). Pleasantville, New York: The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., 1968.

1 comment:

Wynne said...

Thanks for mentioning my father, S.I. Hayakawa. I remember traveling with him in 1967. He spent a lot of the trip working on the galleys for Choose the Right Word. Most of his books are reflections on ways in which language affects our thinking and world view.He also wrote about emotional pitfalls in speech, and how to avoid them He was closely allied with humanistic psychologists of the 1950s and 60s. More recently, Marshall Rosenberg has expanded on my father's work in communication.