Scintillating Synonyms: Potatoes, Cream Puffs, and Murphies, Oh My!

Welcome to your Friday #WOOF Compendium! Lots of goodies today, both literal and figurative: murphies, cream puffs, and Thoreau.

Monday: Murphies (1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, reprinted 1971) — potatoes.

Tuesday: Plena et celeris justitia fiat partibus (1930 Ballentine’s Law Dictionary, rev. 1969) — Let there be full and swift justice for the parties.

Wednesday: Thoreau’s ‘Civil Disobedience’ (1991 Dictionary of Historic Documents) — 1849 essay advocating the act of civil disobedience by an individual to protest an unjust government

Thursday: Tobines (1882 Dictionary of Needlework) — a twilled silk textile which comes in all colors and is very durable.

Friday: Cream Puff (1995 Shade Tree Mechanic’s Automotive Dictionary and Lagniappe) — a vehicle in outstanding condition of appearance and mechanical performance

Both murphies and cream puffs are synonyms for other words, of course, and synonyms, are just good clean fun (don’t worry, here’s your weekly dose of etymology: synonym is from the Greek σύν (sun, with) + ὄνομα (onoma, name)).

Sure, synonyms are fun for a writer to exercise her vocabulary with, and the right synonym can be perfectly evocative, but at what point does synonym usage become a burden to writing?

Let me put it this way: I love the theater, but I hate plays about people making plays, and I hate movies about moviemakers. WOOF Play StageI think the reason these seem so distasteful is that they’re weirdly vaunting, and appeal (mostly) to those in the industry. There’s rarely anything transcendent about them, which is the thing I like about art. It’s easy for writers, who are probably tenacious word lovers, to be vainglorious in the same way. It’s fun to use little-known synonyms, and unusual words (like vainglorious), but in an art whose fundamental purpose is to communicate, sometimes doing this appeals only to other writers. Communication breaks down.

Everyone from Callimachus to Mark Twain has enjoined writers to use simple and brief sentences, and to avoid florid verbosity. It’s usually good advice. But open to just about any page of Marcel Proust’s titanic Remembrance of Things Past, and you’ll be struck by the mastery of his long and labyrinthine sentences. More than anything, the takeaway here is to be the master of your sentiments and to construct a polished sentence, verbose or not. As Thoreau says:

A well-built sentence, in the rapidity and force with which it works, may be compared to a modern cornplanter, which furrows out, drops the seed, and covers it up at one moment.

When a word is right, even if it’s rare and outdated, nothing else will do. So be grandiloquently pleonastic, if you’d like: consume your murphies, take a jaunt in your cream puff, don your Tobine raiment. Just be a scrupulous craftsman when you do it.

Courtney Tobin

I love ancient languages like Greek and Latin, but modern ones are pretty interesting, too! So working with the written word every day and helping Verblio customers get the content they need is really enjoyable. If I’m not reading Homer or Horace, I’m usually figuring out how everything at Verblio can be even more awesome.

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