Published: Jan 15th 2021 The Poetry Question
The Synonym Tables invite the reader to examine language closely and investigate how it shifts over time. By extracting synonyms that are deemed “most relevant” by Thesaurus.com for common words used today and comparing them to synonyms for the same terms from a 1947 textbook via the scientific format of a table, the reader is asked to consider how the tool of language evolves, shrinks, expands, and fails.
I agreed to read this new volume of poetry because I am fascinated with how language changes and how it’s used. I rarely get political on the blog, but where we see changes in language everyday is the media and in politics. I have a disability and if we think about the language around people with illnesses and disabilities, there has been a shift. In fact activists think it has changed significantly in the last fifteen years. There was a move away from using neutral terms towards words that insinuated blame. Here Roche closely examines words surrounding certain subjects – health, employment, status – in order for the reader to see if: there’s a difference; whether tone or agenda has changed; to look for patterns. The main aim is to give the reader food for thought.
There were a few differences the stood out to me. The first table/poem tackles synonyms for poverty and I was interested to see how words had become ‘sanitised’. Instead of ‘destitution’, in 2020 we used the word ‘debt’. It had me thinking about what those words mean. Destitution conjures up images of extreme poverty, having absolutely no resources to draw on. Debt doesn’t quite conjure up the same image, possibly because it has become the norm to live with a certain amount of debt. When I think about destitution I imagine people in rags, no food and possibly no shelter. It conjured images of Victorian orphans. Destitution is something that happens to people, whereas debt carries an amount of blame – it’s something we get ourselves into. Destitution can only be rectified by others helping and giving. Debt is something that carries individual responsibility; only the debtor can rectify the situation. We give to the destitute, but look down on the debtor. We make programmes about bailiffs and watch as they chase down the debtors and take away people’s belongings, There’s a lack of compassion in the word ‘debt’.
In another table the author compares words for ‘opulence’ and there are far fewer words in 2020 than there were in 1947. I always think of opulence in terms of interiors – velvet and silk cushions, a richness in colour from jewel like tones, and chandeliers casting a warm glow over everything. It makes me think of stately homes. To see that our 2020 synonym is ‘worth’ made me feel a bit cross. I didn’t like the idea that riches were comparable to worth. I’ve always been taught that everyone is of the same worth, no matter what they have. I know we live in a world where money equals status, but it shouldn’t equal worth. The synonyms associated with femininity and masculinity were also interesting. On Strictly Come Dancing recently, there was a bit of uproar among feminists when Shirley Ballas kept describing Maisie has powerful. She also commented that about her being ‘feminine but strong’ as if the two things didn’t usually fit together. I saw many women on Twitter change the but for and, being feminine is not one set of traits. So it was interesting to note that in 2020 our thesaurus synonym for feminine is ‘soft’. Equally a word that has crept into our synonyms for masculine is ‘muscular’. This shows that men are now equally judged on appearance to women. There is now an ideal body and appearance for both sexes, written into the language.
From my own disability perspective there were two things I found disturbing in the comparison table. Of course there are many more synonyms for illness in 2020 – for good reason where it’s referring to whether someone’s illness is a virus or an infection. The word ‘syndrome’ also makes an appearance – referring to a bundle of symptoms that have unknown cause, but significant effect on the body. However, when I came across the word ‘defect’ it made me feel very uncomfortable. It signifies a fault with that person instead of a difference or variety. When things are defective we either have them fixed or throw them away. Then I saw the table for synonyms of healthy, and there were some instances where the words didn’t differ at all. Words like ‘robust’, ‘vigorous’ and ‘hearty’ were present both times. However, it was one of the extra words in 2020 that shocked me. In a time where I see use of this word being pulled up all the time when referring to sexuality or gender, one of the synonyms for healthy was ‘normal’. In a medical environment I can understand doctors having to use a word for when someone is functioning at peak condition. Medicine is very much about classification – another reason for the word ‘syndrome’ making an appearance, where someone does not fit an existing or traditionally detectable illness pattern. So, doctors must have a word for the body, that functions within acceptable levels of fluctuation. There’s never just ‘normal’ in the medical world because we all vary so much, so someone’s blood pressure might be ‘within the parameters of normal’. I love it when doctors use that phrase because it tells me that they allow for variations even within a healthy body. However, when we say normal without that caveat, it says that anything different from this narrow field of human functioning, is abnormal.
This very unconventional book of poetry shows us that far from being ‘just words’, the synonyms we choose are very important. Words are very powerful and the ones we choose are fraught with meaning and betray a political, social and economic outlook. It changes the whole meaning of what we say. Someone out of work and struggling financially can be seen as needing help or alternatively as ‘workshy’ or someone to look down on. Someone with a disability can be seen as a hero in context of being injured in military service or a Paralympian. However, when written about in the context of claiming disability benefits, I’ve seen the media use derogatory and offensive language. So, language matters and in the synonyms that we see in a Thesaurus we have to remember the context around their inclusion. We must think about the point in history and the socioeconomic factors in play at that time. It’s worth further study to look at where these synonyms are used most and what effect they have on the piece of writing and the reader. I found these unconventional pieces of poetry interesting and it left me wondering why the author had included certain words and how she’d chosen to place them. Perhaps the particular words I’ve chosen, jumped out at me due to how they’re placed. Maybe the poet wanted to create a certain effect in the reader. It reminds us we should always be aware of the intention behind language when reading. For me this was a fascinating look at the words we use and why.
Meet the Author
Jennifer Roche is a poet, writer, and text artist who lives in Chicago, IL. She is the author of “20,” a chapbook of erasure poems from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Alternating Current Press). Her work has also appeared in Storm Cellar; Tule Review; Footnote: A Literary Journal of History (#2); Oyez Review; Rain, Party & Disaster Society; and Ghost Ocean. The Chicago Guild Literary Complex named her a “Writer to Watch in 2019 & Beyond,” and she was a 2016 Charter Oak Award Semifinalist for Best Historical writing