What’s In a Word? That Depends.

As I skip around the internet looking at other blogs, I’m struck by the incredible variety … variety of content, variety of style and, in particular, variety in the quality of writing. Some is pretty good, but most, I’m afraid, is marginal at best and just awful at worst.

Are kids taught grammar today? Do they spend any time talking about the nuances that provide the difference between two words with very similar meanings? I would guess not.

All of which makes me grateful all over again for the class time I spent during my high school years with an extraordinary man and exceptional English teacher. Quite apart from the formal instruction he gave us, Norris Orchard had a standing offer of $25.00 – a princely sum back in the 50s – if any of his students could come up with perfect synonyms. Emphasis on “perfect”.

It was his contention, you see, that no two words in the English language have exactly the same meaning. To meet his definition of “perfect synonym”, those two words could be substituted for each other in any sentence without altering the meaning of that sentence in any way.

I remember reading somewhere that the average literate English-speaking person can make use of something like 400,000 different words. And, according to Norrie Orchard, of all those words, no two mean exactly the same thing. That’s quite extraordinary, if you stop and think about it.

I remember running up to him during lunch one day and breathlessly offering menace and threat as my entry in the $25 sweepstakes.

“Not bad,” said Norrie. “But you can’t send a menace through the mail.”


But then he stopped and thought a bit. “Unless, of course,” he added, “the postal authorities would accept a package containing a five-year old boy.”

What a guy! What he gave me over four years was worth a whole lot more than $25.