I ‘ve heard it said that the number — and creativity — of words that a culture has for something reflects its importance in that society. So, in a terribly overused cliché (whose verity I can’t even confirm), the Inuit have multitudes of different words for snow — as do hardcore backcountry skiers and snow scientists.
And how many different words do climbers use for the simple verb “to fall,” each highlighting a different nuance of the experience? Or how many ways do college kids describe getting wasted? Count them. It’s impressive.
Sheer magnitude of synonyms is a good start, but I think it’s also telling to notice which words people choose to describe the same thing: I could call my apartment cozy or cramped as hell, depending on the connotation I wanted to convey. Word choice is like a linguistic look into what others really think about, say, ferrets or jelly beans. Or whatever topic is at hand.
I thought about this as I wrote my column last week, because I’ve begun using the thesaurus to find synonyms for “cheap,” the most overused word in my life. And guess what? Apparently cheapness is pretty darn important for us, because there is an overabundance of related words.
One of my new favorite alternatives is mingy (yes, my online thesaurus tells me it’s a real word). Perhaps a mix between mean and stingy? I imagine it’s uttered with a telling narrowing of the eyes and a disapproving tone, but I really like its elongated vowels and unusual combination of letters. In fact, I’m considering bringing it into common usage, and owning it with pride. Some other new favorites include meretricious, bought-for-a-song, miserly, and sordid.
Of course, all the words I just listed apply to different instances of cheapness, from a literal low price to value judgments — just as “cheap” occupies a flexible linguistic role.
But therein lies my fascination with word choice! I find it telling that the greatest number of synonyms (and the most creative) connote a sense of inferior quality — or even vulgarity. Rinky-dink, for instance, I especially like, as well as tawdry, paltry, scroungy, abject, and scurvy. Although I thought that last one was a noun: a vitamin C deficiency, actually, not an adjective. Maybe if you eat cheaply you’re more likely to get scurvy? Or cheapness is a symptom of scurvy? I’m out of my element here.
All nutrition-related tangents aside, though, if we show our collective biases and priorities in the words we use to describe things, then we clearly think of “cheap” as being much more of a negative trait than something to be praised. In a statistically unsound survey of thesaurus.com, I’m guessing only about a quarter of the possible synonyms were free of negative connotations. The rest sounded Scrooge-esque, low quality, or, like I said earlier, vulgar.
I resent that! I love being cheap, and I make it a point of pride to spend as little money as possible. It simplifies life, reduces my impact on the environment and makes my lifestyle a sustainable one by necessity. And anyway, who says that a thing’s value is only a function of how much you spent on it? Wasn’t anyone listening when the Beatles told us “Can’t buy me love”?
Humph. I’m going to go pout about it, and then I’m going to consider waging a linguistic war. Starting with mingy, and then probably rinky-dink, I’m going to ascribe new and better meanings to these fun-to-say words. You just wait and see. Tawdry is going to be the new sick-gnar.