perfect synonyms

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Mon Jul 13 20:33:07 UTC 2009

At 10:50 AM -0400 7/10/09, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
>Years ago I revived the claim that the two most nearly synonymous words in
>English are "gorse" and "furze."

This pair also has a distinguished history in the philosophy of
language, going back (at least) 30 years to a famous paper by Saul
Kripke in "A Puzzle About Belief" (1979).  His point was that an
otherwise competent speaker of English could acquire both terms
through ostensive definitions without realizing that they refer to
the same thing, so that "X believes that gorse is gorse" and "X
believes that gorse is furze" could differ in truth value, which
might to taken to suggest that (on one view of synonymy) they're not
synonyms after all.

>  Not only do they designate the same
>referent; they are both monosyllabic and even bear a minor phonetic
>I can now reveal two comparably synonymous English words. They are
>so mundane, however, that no one will be impressed.
>The envelope please:
>"Flapjack" and "slapjack."

The former no doubt arising from the latter on the occasion when John
Donne spelled "slapjack" with one of those f-ish-looking s's in an
otherwise obscure erotic poem.


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