Synonym Pudding


Webster's Tenth Collegiate dictionary lists synonyms of headword adjectives in two ways: in small caps in the main definition set, and at the end with the heading syn followed by a group of additional small cap synonyms. (The latter are selected to highlight the distinctions among the synonyms; for example lazy, indolent and slothful all mean "not easily aroused to activity", but lazy suggests a disinclination to take trouble, indolent suggests a love of ease, and slothful, a temperamental inability to act promptly.) Approximately 220 of the headword adjectives merit the syn treatment, and the one thousand synonyms they dissect represent about one-sixth of the headword adjectives.

Using this data, one can readily construct synonym chains (B is a synonym of A, C is a synonym of B, etc.) and such chains can be connected into immensely complicated directed networks (B is listed as a synonym of A, but A is not necessarily listed as a synonym of B). In "Synonym Chains" in the May 1988 Word Ways, I showed how chains could be constructed to connect antonyms, such as LIGHT-bright-cunning-furtive-sly-furtive-secret-hidden -obscure-DARK and DARK-obscure-vague-vacant-empty-foolish-simple-easy-LIGHT.

In this article, I focus instead on the syn groups. Certain ones have words in common; in the most extreme case, a set of sixteen have such an entanglement. These overlaps are diagrammed below. Selected adjectives in the same syn group are connected by 01, 02, 03, ... or 16; the full groups are listed at the end of this article. In addition, if one examines the synonyms in the main definition set of each word in a synonym group, one finds that 38 of these connect with other syn groups (labeled 21, 22, .... 37, 42); connections are indicated by < or >. The most notable of these is the word empty in the syn group VAIN-nugatory-otiose-idle-empty-hollow, which has the synonym foolish in the main definition set. This is part of the syn group SIMPLE-foolish-silly-fatuous-asinine, which in turn is linked with six other syn groups (40, 41.43, 44, 45, 46). Among the remaining syn groups, there is one linked group of five and two of four; most of the rest are isolated.

The word sensible is found in four different syn groups: AWARE-cognizant-conscious-sensible-alive-awake, MATERIAL-physical-corporeal-phenomenal-sensible-objective, PERCEPTIBLE-sensible-palpable-tangible-appreciable-ponderable, and WISE-sage-sapient-judicious-prudent-sensible-sane.

Why "Synonym Pudding"? I regard the syn groups as highly-connected subsets of synonyms, much like plums in a pudding; the other five-sixths of adjectives form the pudding filling.

Which two adjectives are farthest apart in the pudding? More precisely, each pair of adjectives can be connected by a minimum-length chain; for what pair is this minimum maximized? This extraordinarily-difficult question can only be answered with the aid of a computer. What do the corresponding synonym puddings for nouns or verbs look like?

                   21 foul < rank 03 musty > antiquated 22
                             02             > trite 23
                             02 24crude > ribald 04 vulgar 04 gross
> ignorant 25
                     05
                     05             > individual 26
        seeming      05    separate > detached 27
           06        05       07    > autonomous 28 clear 08 apparent
08 plain 08 distinct
  09                 10             amenable 16 tractable > malleable
37
  09                 10              11
  09       29 low < open 12 prone 12 liable 12 sensitive >
delicate 30
  09                 10       13
  09                frank   supine 14 idle 14 inactive > lazy 31
transparent          10                15              > latent 32
                    candid > fair 33 otiose > futile 35
                           > blunt 36 15
                                   34 empty > foolish
                                                42
                              banal 46 flat     42
                                      45        42
                                     smooth 40 simple 40 easy
                                      43                  41
                      advisable 44 politic            comfortable
02 FLAGRANT glaring gross rank 03 MALODOROUS stinking fetid noisome
putrid rank fusty musty 04 COARSE obscene gross vulgar ribald 05 COMMON
plain ordinary familiar plain vulgar 06 APPARENT illusory seeming
ostensible 07 DISTINCT separate discrete 08 EVIDENT manifest patent
distinct obvious apparent plain clear 09 CLEAR transparent translucent
limpid 10 FRANK candid open plain 11 RESPONSIBLE answerable accountable
amenable liable 12 LIABLE exposed open subject prone susceptible
sensitive 13 PRONE supine prostrate recumbent 14 INACTIVE idle inert
passive supine 15 VAIN nugatory otiose idle empty hollow 16 OBEDIENT
docile tractable amenable
40 EASY facile simple light effortless smooth 41 COMFORTABLE cozy snug
easy restful 42 SIMPLE foolish silly fatuous asinine 43 SUAVE urbane
diplomatic bland smooth politic 44 EXPEDIENT politic advisable 45 LEVEL
flat plain even smooth 46 INSIPID vapid flat jejune banal inane 21 DIRTY
filthy foul nasty squalid 22 OLD ancient venerable antique antiquated
archaic obsolete 23 TRITE hackneyed stereotyped threadbare 24 RUDE rough
crude raw 25 IGNORANT illiterate unlettered untutored unlearned 26
SPECIAL especial specific particular individual 27 INDIFFERENT
unconcerned incurious alone detached disinterested 28 FREE independent
autonomous sovereign 29 BASE low vile 30 CHOICE exquisite elegant rare
delicate dainty 31 LAZY indolent slothful 32 LATENT dormant quiescent
potential 33 FAIR just equitable impartial unbiased dispassionate
objective 34 DULL blunt obtuse 35 FUTILE vain fruitless 36 BLUFF brunt
brusque curt crusty gruff 37 PLASTIC pliable pliant ductile malleable
adaptable 

A. …

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