microscopic is tinier than miniscule


Maybe other great minds have already answered this question, but I’m looking for something specific: the perfect synonym. I should go a little further and say I’m looking for the perfect adjective synonym, since you can always say words like “car” and “automobile” are synonyms, but there are always infinitesimal differences of meaning between, say, “hot”, “scalding”, “boiling”, “stifling”, and “blistering”.

For instance, in ascending order of intensity, I’d proffer the following list for “big”:










So I put to you, fair readers, what descriptive word in English can be perfectly replaced by another word, with absolutely no alteration of meaning?

0 thoughts on “microscopic is tinier than miniscule

  1. CET3

    I don’t think there are any perfect synonyms. There is always some different shade of tone or meaning. I refer to obnoxious edits that are a difference without a distinction as “changing ‘glad’ to ‘happy.'” That comes pretty close in most contexts.

  2. kent

    ‘cease’ and ‘desist’
    There’s a whole bunch of two word cliches in legal language like this: one word Latinate, one Germanic. They come to us from a time when the British Isles had speakers of both latinate and germanic tongues, and the convention was to use both words to make sure everyone understood. So by definition both ‘cease’ and ‘desist’ mean the same thing.

  3. Mark C.

    ‘awesome’ and ‘random’ they have both been misused by so many for so long they are both essentially meaningless, I know I am being an old curmudgeon, but few things are truely awesome and truly random, but you would think everything are both if you listen to people talk so does that kind of count in a modestly funny way?

  4. Ian

    “Large” is bigger than “big”, not to mention slightly more formal. I also think “little” is smaller than “small” but I could be outvoted.
    To me, “glad” is more generally contented (and more also more formal) than “happy”, which connotes more of a fleeting emotion. Again, fine to be outvoted!
    “Cease” and “desist” are not adjectives, O brother mine.

  5. al

    Do you think rocks and stones are the same thing? I don’t – but I’ve been told by they are. As adjectives, are they the same? Is a stoney creek the same as a rocky creek? I think not.
    I believe we all have our own currency in terms of language and use of adjectives. My glad might be your happy, my large your huge. And perhaps, however minor our differences in the interpretation of each, there’s always something lost in translation.

  6. Big Scott

    I’m kind of with Al on this one, especially the last part about each person having one’s own currency of language. I like that phrase, though I tend to think about it in a slightly different way. Having some amount of training in biology , I tend to think about language in terms of neuroanatomical terms. By placing words on the page and having you read them I can stimulate those synapses in your frontal lobe that correspond to the words on the page, but I have no control over what downstream associations you may have in response to all of those synapses firing at the same time. There’s going to be certain amount of commonality based on one’s culture, education and standard usage, but the fine details are really up for grabs depending on the individual. I’m sure that this is a truly simplistic view of what actually goes on, but I think it works in rough terms. I foresee some rather dense reading on language and neuroanatomy in my future.
    And, by the way, rocks and stones — definitely not the same. Rocks have corners and sharp edges, while stones have more regular, smooth surfaces. At least they do in my little world.

  7. Jes

    In a similar vein: egg-shaped, ovoid
    I seem to remember Nabokov talking about the density of meaning in English words and how it made translating his work especially challenging. The example he gave was “oaken”, which is not quite the same as “made of oak”.

  8. Alan

    I would think there are really no synonyms. Examples from the above:
    – “cease” and “desist” mean different things: ceasing is stopping while desisting is not starting.
    – “spherical” is perfection in three dimensions while orbicular would include lumpiness. I don’t think as sphere can have a mountainous protrusion.
    – “stupid” is about intellectual capacity while “dumb” is the inability to articulate.
    But, then again, it depends on your level of abstraction. If you do not drill down into etymology or accept common use there are certainly synonyms. I expect my nine year old to tell me that the management of the Yankees is “stupid” one day and “dumb” the next and I will praise him for his insight each time.

  9. Anne

    I like Sarah’s “wordy” and “verbose,” above.
    RE: Ian’s reaction to big/large and little/small — I find it wonderful that we all carry around in our heads these additional subtleties of meaning for particular words, perhaps influenced by overheard conversations when we were small, or things we read, or localized usage. And I kind of get the small/little distinction myself — “little” has a more diminutive feel, plus it’s fun and rhythmic to say and sing: “I’m a little white duck sittin’ in the water.” (*nostalgia for Burl Ives*)

  10. Ian

    “wordy” and “verbose” are pretty close – though, would you say that “wordy” is slightly more pejorative? “Wordy” implies too many words, and verbose implies a lot of words… but they differ only by a hair.
    “inadvertent” and “unintentional” is pretty damned close too. I’m having trouble finding a difference – anybody else?
    Oh, I think “intelligent” is slightly smarter than “smart”.
    The K word ought to be Krzyzewskiesque, n’est-ce pas?

  11. Neva

    Medicine is full of this kind of stuff. Lots of fancy sounding medical terms that are really just synonyms for regular every day words.
    erythematous = red
    edematous = swollen
    Lots more where that came from..

  12. janet

    right now…..etc

  13. xuxE

    i don’t know, i think stupid ass and dumb ass are pretty much the same thing, unless you mean the pair of words in questio ncan’t have any *other* meaning, they can *only* have the synonymous meaning.
    in other words, spherical and orbicular *can* both have the same exact meaning of “round” in some contexts but ALSO could have different meanings in other contexts.
    like let’s say you’re rambling along with some story and you’re going: “the pitcher’s hands gripped the familiar orbital projectile as he mentally calculated the distance from his target and assessed impact of the faint wind coming in at a 15 degree angle. as he shifted the spherical bullet in his hands, precisely positioning the seams along his index finger, he began to feel a dizzying yet pleasurable head rush, fueled in part by this morning’s cocktail of steroids and methanphetamines.
    seems to me in this case both words are just saying “round”. but it might be different if you are describing the topigraphical landscape of jupiter vs. mars or something.
    or as option B i give you:
    shitty and sucky.

  14. Tanya

    Yearly = annually
    Had an editor once who could NOT resist changing or altering (ooh! Synonyms!) at least something in every doc that crossed his path. I submitted a one-pager marketing a corn herbicide, and that was his only edit.

  15. Caitlin

    I think wordy applies more to writing and verbose to speech. But maybe that’s my idiosyncratic shade of meaning.
    Yearly and annually seem indistinguishable to me.

  16. Ian

    Maybe I should further restrict the definition, since “yearly” and “annually” both describe one thing – a year – that never changes, at least conceptually. Same goes for the “car” and “automobile” example.
    “Pert” is more of a permanent description to me, whereas “perky” implies that the perky object is prone to change.

  17. HG

    see Italian dictionary: CESSARE, DESISTERE are both Latin roots.
    So the theory about juxtaposing Latin/Germanic synonyms is certainly not proven by this, typically American, legalese using superfluous repetition.


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