The Connotative Power of Words

Sydney J. Harris on Synonyms and Connotations

If it was your fault, we had a "collision," but if it was my fault, we just "bumped fenders.". (simonkr/Getty Images)

"A writer needs an 'ear' as much as a musician does," wrote Sydney J. Harris. "And without this ear, he is lost and groping in a forest of words, where all the trees look much alike."

Harris himself had an ear for words. From the 1940s to the 1980s, his column "Strictly Personal" ran five days a week in hundreds of American newspapers. Harris's short essays were playfully erudite and--in his "antics with semantics"--often concerned with the connotative power of words.

Unfortunately, he said, "most persons--and this includes aspiring writers--simply fail to recognize that there are very few true synonyms in the language, no matter what the dictionary may insist."

A dictionary can tell us only what a word points to, not "what it feels like":

Distinguishing between two words that seem to mean the same, but have different colors and shapes and suggestions--this is essential to the art of writing, and also of speaking. . . .

Unspeakable in the dictionary means the same as unutterable--but the former is always used to mean something base or vile, while the latter usually means some rapturous or divine thought or emotion.

The right word is as important to the writer as the right note to the composer or the right line to the painter.
(Sydney J. Harris, "You Need an Ear for Words to Write." Last Things First. Houghton Mifflin, 1961)

A few times a year, Harris would illustrate this point by drawing some important distinctions between related words.

Here are several examples from The Best of Sydney J. Harris (Houghton Mifflin, 1975).

  • The striking colors in our living room are "dramatic"; the striking colors in yours are "flamboyant."
  • My inability to warm up to strangers is caused by "shyness," but yours is caused by "stand-offishness."
  • I take you to a restaurant that is "charmingly unpretentious," but you take me to a restaurant that is a "dive."
  • Jane marries John because of his "boyish charm"--and divorces him because of his "immaturity."
  • I am "strong-minded," but you are "opinionated."
  • I am opposed to your newfangled ideas because I believe in "the value of tradition," but you are opposed to my sensible reforms because you are "blindly clinging to the past."
  • My attorney "knows all the ins and outs," but my opponent's attorney is a "slippery character."
  • The difference between "vandalism" and a "harmless prank" depends upon whose child has committed it.
  • As a junior executive, I am "on the alert for opportunities within the organization," but as a junior executive, you are "on the make."
  • If it was your fault, we had a "collision," but if it was my fault, we just "bumped fenders."
  • Their nation has a "network of spies," but our nation takes "security measures."
  • They try to change Our minds by "propaganda," but We try to change Their minds by "information."
  • When you attack us, it is an "act of war," but when we attack you, it is "a necessary preventive move to maintain our independence and to preserve the peace."
  • When my candidate makes slashing charges against the opposition, he is "forthright," but when your candidate does the same, he is "irresponsible."
  • When my candidate reverses his mind after election, it proves he is "open minded"; when yours does the same thing, it shows him up as "a man of no principle."

To learn more about the "different colors and shapes and suggestions" of words, see Choosing the Best Words: Denotations and Connotations.