The Compulsive Copyeditor

April 26, 2012

The Subtle Shadings of Spellings and Synonyms

To those of us who are almost synesthetic about words, two different words with one dictionary meaning (denotation), or one word with two different spellings, become completely different animals.  If denotation is a word’s DNA, then connotation, the waft of resonances and associations around it, is its epigenetics.  Two such words are like identical twins who have grown into very different individuals.

Two examples I’ve recently come in contact with:

1. grey vs. gray. The only difference is that the first is the British and the second the American spelling.  But how different their tone colors are.  Grey is grim, yellow, and sallow. It speaks of London industrial grime and gaslight, maybe even gaol (there’s a hollow spelling for you!) and gallows. Gray is blue-gray—softer, more open (the vowel isn’t pinched), less hopeless, a color you might feel drawn to touch, like some clouds or feathers. (Interestingly, neither spelling, to me, seems right for gray hair, which is more metallic—steely, pewtery, silvery, until it goes snowy.)

2. persistent versus persevering. Do these words mean exactly the same thing you?  To me, “persistent” has a more active and interpersonal connotation than “persevering.” “Persistent” could be a kid pestering its parent for an ice cream cone (the alliteration between “persistent” and “pestering” is probably one of the keys to my reaction), or Jehovah’s Witnesses handing out the Watchtower, or Martin Luther nailing the theses to the cathedral door—sort of repeated attempts to get the world’s attention. “Persevering” means not quitting, just keeping on going. One is head up, one head down; one insistent (another sound clue), one stoical. A dog jumping over and over at a closed door versus a tortoise plodding doggedly (!) along.

Is it just me?

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