Shades of Meaning

Do you remember your first thesaurus?  Or maybe the day your English teacher told you to ask your parents to buy you a thesaurus?  Do you remember why?  I seem to remember being told , If you use the same word over and over (and over and over) in your writing, it becomes repetitive and boring.  A thesaurus gives you words with the same meaning that you can use instead.   I learned that those words the thesaurus provided were called synonyms.  Sometimes, in an effort to vary their choice of words by arbitrarily using synonyms, students unintentionally produced some amusing images.   For instance, there was the time the outlaw, Black Bart, sashayed into the saloon, or the improper stepmother inhumanely kept Cinderella from the attending the ball*.  Those of us who cared to earn more than a good-effort-C learned that a synonym is a word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another, and that a thesaurus is a reference work that lists words grouped together according to similarity of meaning.   We learned that words have connotations, a commonly understood subjective cultural or emotional association that some word or phrase carries, in addition to the word’s or phrase’s explicit or literal meaning.   And those of us that learned to love words came to love the Shades of Meaning between the synonyms we found in the thesaurus.

I tried to remember how I learned about Shades of Meaning fifty-something years ago.  Of course there were frequent vocabulary assignments that required us to look up each word’s meaning, provide a synonym and use it in a sentence.  I seem to remember some pretty awful sentences, including, We saw a lion and hiatus.  Beyond that, it was up to us.  I bring that up because when I Googled Shades of Meaning, I found numerous lesson plans that teachers can use to help students visualize the small differences between synonyms.  On Book Nook – Good Reads for Educators, education writers Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey suggest using paint chips to help visualize the continuum of meaning of similar words.  Shades of Meaning with Verbs has students acting out synonyms to see the differences between them.  There are numerous Powerpoint lessons, like this one, online that use simple examples and exercises in ordering synonyms by intensity, along with many pictures and cartoons to hold the students attention.  The Visual Thesaurus attempts to move beyond simply ordering synonyms by diagramming the relationship between them.

I’m gratified to find that schools are still teaching something as subtle as Shades of Meaning.  Watching herds of youngsters go by, eyes glued to smartphones and fingers sending grammarless, graceless text messages, it’s easy to wonder if there are any future writers among them.  I’ll be long gone, so it won’t matter to me, but I think it would be drab (arid, bleak, boring, characterless, cheerless, desolate, dingy, dismal, dreary, dry, faded, flat, gloomy, gray, lackluster, muddy, murky, somber) world without writers and readers.  And as a primarily kinesthetic learner, I fear that all this emphasis on visual learning misses the point that Shades of Meaning can only be learned by reading the works of those who have mastered it … and being taught the art of composition.  And in the end, you only learn it if you learn to love it.

What do you think?

* Of course, Bart swaggered into the bar and the evil stepmother cruelly kept Cinderella from attending the ball.

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3 Comments on “Shades of Meaning”

  1. cherperz Says:

    The problem with being descriptive these days is that if you speak with “big words” or unusual words, it confuses (some of the) people. When I started managing the state unemployment office a number of years ago, my supervisor said I needed to use more words with 4 or less letters. Words like arbitrary or conformity seemed to confuse applicants. As I always wanted to be proficient in my job, so I got really good with some 4 letter words.


  2. The brief period of time I worked as a newspaper reporter-trainee (about 8 weeks), the woman who was my supervisor told me my writing was “too intelligent” for their readership. I was told the average reader only reads at about a 6th grade level and to strive for that. Personally, I felt that was demeaning to me -as a reader of the paper -and a direct slam then against the people of this region. Perhaps if newspapers and/or other publications don’t adhere to that “write on the reader’s level” but increase the intellectual quality of their publications, it might serve to help people to improve their ability to read and comprehend. JMHO


  3. “Watching herds of youngsters go by, eyes glued to smartphones and fingers sending grammarless, graceless text messages, it’s easy to wonder if there are any future writers among them”

    I worried about that too. Especially about my own 16 year old son. Which is one of the very many reasons I wanted him to start his own blog. And I am so glad he listened to me, because it IS nice to see him write, properly.


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