Word associations as synonymy

From “Disappearing ink: Afghanistan’s sham democracy” by Matthieu Aikins, Harper’s Magazine for January 2011, p. 40:

The Anglicism “democracy,” for many Afghans, has become synonymous with unprecedented corruption, moral decay, and hypocrisy; it is another one of the plagues that the West has brought to this country.

So, for these Afghans, the word democracy has picked up (specific) negative connotations in certain sociocultural contexts. This is bad word association — [bad] [word association] , not [bad word] [association] — in fact, bad word association described by synonymous with in an extended sense.

In its original technical senses, synonymous with denotes a relation between words (or, more generally, linguistic expressions) with the same denotation (but not necessarily the same connotations, stylistic level, contexts of use, etc.); these are the items listed in synonym dictionaries and lists. So, furze is synonymous with gorse, dick and cock are (in certain uses) synonymous with one another and both synonymous with penis, one use of gay is synonymous with one use of stupid, and so on.

Then come somewhat looser relations between words, what OED2 gives in its synonymous entry as:

In extended sense, said of words or phrases which denote things that imply one another: cf. synonym n. 2.

The cites are mostly, but not entirely, negative in tone, for instance:

1706    R. Estcourt Fair Example i. i,   Cuckold and Husband are as Synonimous Terms, as Rogue and Attorney.

1855    W. H. Prescott Hist. Reign Philip II I. iii. i. 317   The name of soldier was synonymous with that of marauder.

1873    G. S. Baden-Powell New Homes for Old Country 431   With many,‥going out to Australia is believed to be synonymous with making a fortune.

“Denote things that imply one another” is somewhat problematic. To start with, this uses an extended sense of imply to refer to relations between things rather than words (as in “Rain implies clouds”). Then, the relationhips are not bidirectional: being a rogue doesn’t imply being an attorney, nor does being a marauder imply being a soldier — only the converse is intended, in each case. And even though being a cuckold does (or did) in fact imply being a husband, the intent of Estcourt’s example is to assert that being a husband implies being a cuckold, that is, that every husband will, sooner or later, be cuckolded.

Finally, in the Baden-Powell example, it’s no longer clear that the relation in question is one of words at all. Rather the intent seems to be to assert that going out to Australia implies making a fortune, a thing-thing relation.

So we have some cases of word-word relations that follow from thing-thing relations, and possibly one case of a free-standing thing-thing relation (of the rain-clouds variety). The Afghan democracy example looks like a word-thing relation, between the Anglicism democracy and various political conditions or actions.

Some more probable word-thing cases, from a search on {“gay is synonymous with”}, which yields a hodgepodge of examples, some presented as word-word relations (“”gay” is synonymous with “sex””, which surely is intended to mean “”gay” is synonymous with sex”), some as word-thing relations (“For many ethnic and racial minorities, gay is synonymous with white and male”), some as thing-thing relations (“being gay is synonymous with being sexually promiscuous”), though the intent of the writers is not always clear. But many of the examples look like they are describing associations to the word gay.


One Response to “Word associations as synonymy”

  1. More synonymy « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] zwicky It occurred to me (during fevered sleep) that it might be worth checking out {“is synonymous with quality”} and similar expressions linking a product or company name with a desirable […]

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