Spice of life

Variety is the spice of life, and because many words of modern English come from lots of different sources, French, German, Nordic languages, Latin, Spanish and even Hindi and Eskimo, speakers and writers have lots of choice when it comes to which words to use.


For example:-

Is this bed hard or solid?

Is he clever / intelligent / bright / smart ...?

This all makes English a rich language, but it can be frustrating.

My husband snores, however a doctor might say he has sternution, but probably only to another doctor.  He occasionally has a restless night too, which involves getting up at 3 am and making tea or catching up on the ironing. Does he suffer from sleeplessness or insomnia? I would say sleeplessness because I know he was asleep by 10 pm and that it only happens about once every few weeks. On the other hand, I have been a poor sleeper since I was young; often not falling to sleep until 3 am or even later and then waking up again around 7am. So, I would say I have insomnia. In this case the choice is governed by the degree of sleeplessness. It is a subtle difference, but there is a difference.

Other choices may depend on formality or circumstances.

  • Am I a woman or lady? Is my husband a man or a gentleman?  
  • When a relative dies, do I say they have died, or do I say they have kicked the bucket?  (Stick to standard English, to kick the bucket is slang and would be considered irreverent.)

At the other end of the scale we have the word 'pregnant'.  How do you describe that condition? If you highlight a word in Microsoft Word and then click on 'synonym' it will give you a whole list of other ways of saying it. However, it doesn’t include all the slang terms such as being ‘up the duff’, ‘in the club’  ‘expecting’, or 'to have a bun in the oven'. In addition, language changes, nowadays someone might say ‘It’s a blue line’ referring back to the pregnancy test kit, whereas the thin blue line refers to the police force.

Expecting or pregnant are probably the most common and acceptable ways to describe someone who is "with child", but as you can see, there are lots of ways of saying it, and you have to choose the most appropriate.

It is the same when it comes to describing interests and hobbies. Do you go fishing or angling? – The latter is specifically for using a hook and line, but the more general term ‘fishing’ covers everything, including lying on your stomach and pulling cray fish out of a stream or even catching razor shells on a beach armed with a packet of salt.

Choosing the correct word can be difficult. Context affects what a word means: A bag for instance might be a handbag, something for your shopping, or a postman’s sack. (It can also be a rather rude word for a woman  - ‘the old bag’.) A sack is also a bag, but it doesn’t have handles and usually holds things that come in bulk – potatoes or cement, sand or carrots. (The French phrase for handbag is 'sac a main').

OMG! I hear you cry.  How can you, as a learner, be expected to learn all this? Well, I'll be honest - You can't.  It is the sort of knowledge that comes when using the language, in real situations.  So, even though it can be confusing, and for a while you may always choose the same word again and again, you will still be understood, and asking someone what something means is a great way of starting a conversation.  It is all part of making English the fun language it is.