Around the 1880s, anthropologist Franz Boas returned from an expedition through northern Canada, where he had spent weeks studying the language and culture of the Inuit people. One claim he presented in his 1911 report on the journey has since been the subject of controversy among linguists and scholars alike. That is, that the Inuit people have 50 different words for the word “snow.” This number, Boas notes, demonstrates the significance of snow to the Eskimo culture and how language can reflect a society’s true values.
After reading this story, I began to wonder: What if Boas had repeated his study with American culture? What, according to synonym count, defines our society and how we function? Well, let’s look at some numbers:
Drunk (adj.): affected by alcohol to the extent of losing control of one’s faculties or behavior
Number of synonyms: 2, 241
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the English word “drunk” holds the title for “most known synonyms” with 2, 241, a number which is growing still. One writer, Paul Dickson, who set the first Guinness record, has set out to find even more synonyms. Thanks to help from drinkers around the world, he has discovered over 3,000 terms for drunk, including whazood, whiskey friskey, and smashed, among others. He has even beat out Ben Franklin, who set the original record back in 1737 when he published a list of “vintage drinking terms” in the Pennsylvania Gazette. As it turns out, this Founding Father knew just as much about “getting globular” as he did about electricity.
Beautiful (adj.): pleasing the senses or the mind aesthetically
Number of synonyms: A MILLION
I may have exaggerated the number of synonyms for this word, but if I didn’t, I would inevitably receive a message saying “You can’t put a limit on all of the ways to say beautiful, you know…beauty is infinite” and to be honest, I don’t have time for an existential debate on the nature of beauty. I can say, though, that typing “synonyms for” into Google immediately brings up “beauty” as well as a hundred articles on others ways to tell your spouse that he or she is beautiful in order to get out of doing the dishes or watching The Real Housewives of New Jersey for the fifth time.
Good (adj.): satisfactory in quality
Number of synonyms: 380
The Oxford English Dictionary states that there are around 380 synonyms for “good,” which I find questionable considering I can only ever think of 5 in a game of Scattergories. Granted, there are equally as many terms for “bad” so not much can be said about the optimism of America.
Now, these are the three words that came up the most in my search for synonyms, but none of them really capture an authentically American culture like snow does for the Eskimos. The closest equivalent I can imagine is the growing collection of words used to describe technology (gadgets, gizmos, devices, machines, robots, etc.). With the increasing emphasis on digitization, tech comes close to defining our country. Then again, America is a diverse place filled with different kinds of peoples and subcultures. Words that define the northeast may not define the south or the west coast. (Anyone that suggests otherwise clearly hasn’t tried to say “y’all” outside of Texas or order ice cream with “jimmies” outside of New England.) If we were to break down these different areas and analyze the slang terms and synonym count, we might be able to get a more accurate picture of these subcultures.
New Englanders, for example, may have more words for snowstorm than Californians, who remain blissfully unaware of the fluffy substance. Likewise, Floridians may have a lot of words to describe hurricanes or, equally as common, crazy people. (I’m just poking fun, Florida residents that are already angrily typing a response to this post. But you have to admit, it’s hard not to when stories about bath salts and McDonald’s rampages are coming out of your state every day, and there are Twitter accounts designed to document it all.) The cultures of these mini-areas are eventually reflected in the language.
So I ask you: Which word or words do you think define American culture, either because they possess a lot of synonyms or they just feel particularly American?
P.S. For the record, the information I gathered was based on various articles and dictionaries I found on the Internet. I am by no means an expert on synonyms and the Internet is, obviously, not the most reliable source but hey, you work with what you’ve got.
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