Semantic distinctions between regional synonyms

Rudolph C Troike rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU
Sat Jun 24 05:19:19 UTC 2000


        Since you grew up in the Houston area, you probably made a
distinction between mosquito hawks and snake doctors, too (the latter out
of bounds for Greg since it begins with S).  There is a general principle
that when people grow up along an isogloss boundary, hearing competing
usages (or in my case, growing up in the Valley, with a mixture of
immigrants), they will tend to either level them out, chosing one and
banishing the other, or will try to rationalize the difference by looking
for meaning differences to differentiate them and retain both. This is
neatly illustrated by Atwood's finding that along the mosquito hawk
(Coastal Southern)/snake doctor (South Midland) boundary in Texas,
speakers, having noted that there are big dragon flies and little dragon
flies, distinguished them by identifying snake doctors as larger than
mosquito hawks. In Georgia, along the same boundary, some speakers
reported that mosquito hawks were larger than snake doctors! This is one
of the best examples of this process I know. Other responses herein have
shown the same process for rationalizing frosting vs icing.
        I always have fun in my American English course asking people to
describe their use of "pail" vs "bucket". Responses vary all over the
place, especially size and material, which are sometimes reversed (little
pail vs big bucket, big pail vs little bucket; metal vs plastic [wood has
disappeared except in the quotation "the old oaken bucket", LAMSAS to the
contrary notwithstanding]). I also like to use this as an illustration of
the mantra "words don't have meaning, people do", and to show how we form
our own idiosyncratic theory of word meanings, and should never really
assume that our interlocutors have the same theory we do. It also accounts
neatly for the genesis of semantic change, as well as linguistic change in
        Incidentally, the same principle applies to different
pronunciations, a nice example being the pronunciation of "greasy" with
/s/ or /z/ along the isogloss in northern Pennsylvania.

        Have fun, Greg, and thanks for the question.


More information about the Ads-l mailing list