Synonyms and Antonyms
last update: 28 July 2020
Give any of three etymologically unrelated homographs that denote, respectively: to recover confidence or vitality; an incidental benefit attached to one’s employment or position; and an abbreviated form of the verb that denotes the action of repeatedly passing boiling water through ground coffee beans?
Synonyms are words or phrases that mean nearly the same (or exactly the same) as another word or phrase. There are synonyms that work in only one 'direction', e.g. you can replace 'long' with 'extended' in "long time" to get "extended time", but you can't put 'long' into "extended family".
Antonyms which are 'pairs' of words that are inherently the opposite, e.g. long and short. So antonyms are set against synonyms. It we take long-short, the antonym asks the question "what are the opposites of long"? Which is the same as asking "what are the synonyms of short"? There are lots of alternatives to short (and also to long), so pairs such as hot-cold, short-tall, early-late, etc. are set on a continuous spectrum or scalar dimension which allows a degree of oppositeness. Some experts will say we are on firm ground with pairs such as pull-push, male-female, start-finish, head-foot which all look to be exact opposites and 'naturally binary'. Antonymy is the pair-wise relation of semantically opposite words, and antonym pairs are then judged to be good or bad examples. Most people will argue that with a bit of context, we can find a broad range of lexical pairings, i.e. antonyms having meanings that are opposed to one another in a given context. There are very sensible opposites, with man-woman, people are either one or the other, and with long-short, the oppositeness is obvious one you have a contextual standard. The idea of 'sensible opposites' highlights the similarity between man-woman and long-short, they are very similar but incompatible. So a modern day view is that down-up, hate-love, man-woman, north-south, alive-dead, long-short, happy-sad, are all antonyms. And that even more importantly the alternative word can be slotted into the same place in a sentence and it remains grammatically correct, e.g. "children are not a good (bad) investment". Specialist can write whole books on this topic, but we will stop here.
Above we have just scrapped the surface about the way types of words are related by their spelling, meaning, pronunciation, etc. Below we can see that there are a variety of different ways to look at pairs of words.
Homonyms are either homographs (words that are spelt the same, regardless of pronunciation) or homophones (words that are pronounced the same, regardless of spelling), or both. An example of a homophone is rain, reign, rein. An example of a homograph would be 'lead' as a metal and to 'lead' someone around. Homonym is often used for words that have identical spelling and pronunciation, e.g. as in 'bear' the animal, and to carry or 'bear' something, and where the meaning depends simply upon the context of use.
Hyponymy and Hypernymy is just about how some words relate to others, e.g. how crow and eagle are all hyponyms of 'birds', which is in turn a hyponym of 'animal'.
The idea is that there is a generic term (hypernym) and then specific instances of it (hyponym). So a hypernym consists of hyponyms, which works fine for nouns or verbs, but is more tricky for abstract words. You can see the relationship between a hypernym and hyponyms in the phrase "A screwdriver is a tool", where the word screwdriver (hyponym) can be replaced by other types of tools (which is a hypernym). Of course hyponymy is a transitive relation, because in the first example the crow is a hyponym of bird (a hypernym), but at the same time bird is a hyponym of animal (a hypernym). And in fact all the different birds are considered as co-hyponyms because they share the same hypernym (bird). But equally bird is considered an autohyponym because it is both a hyponym and a hypernym.
These concepts are useful in building semantic relationships and in judging semantic similarities, and in translations systems they are important because hyponyms are very common across languages, e.g. crow, corbeau, cuervo, convo,… and all birds, des oiseaux, aves, uccelli, …, which are all animals, animaux, animales, animali, …
Holonymy and Meronymy is all about how words (terms) are denoted as whole or as parts of a whole. So the 'whole' is called a holonym of its parts, and a part is called a meronym of a 'whole'. As an example, finger is a meronym of a hand (a holonym). The focus in on the 'part of'. As an example a pine tree is a hyponymy of a tree ("a kind of tree"), but bark or leaf are meronyms of tree ("part of a tree"). The study of the relationship between parts and the whole they form is called mereology.
Metonymy and Synecdoche are two additional concepts. Firstly metonymy is about the way a concept or thing can be referred to by the name of something that is closely associated with it. Single words can have multiple, but related, meanings (polysemy), and therefore both metonymy and metaphor involve the substitution of one word (term) for another. A metaphoric substitution is based upon an analogy between two things, whereas a metonymic substitution is based on some physical/logical relationship. A great example is the word 'fishing' where we know that the aim is to capture fish. The expression "fishing for information" is a metaphor since there is no physical similarity. However "fishing for pearls" is a metonym since both have a strong physical or real relationship, e.g. taking something from the sea.
This may appear a little academic, but the Wikipedia article on metonymy informs us that we actually use metonyms all the time. We call food a 'dish', a 'brain' implies intelligence, a 'stomach' for appetite, a 'hand' for help, a 'question mark' for an unknown, a 'head' for cattle, 'Whitehall' for the UK government, a Benjamin Franklin for a US $100 bill. These are not metaphors because there is a clear real-word relationship between, for example, 'head' and cattle.
Synecdoche is a specific kind of metonymy, where the two things mentioned are part of each other. So for example 'head' and cattle is a synecdoche, because cattle do have heads. However, the phrase "Whitehall said …" is a metonym but not a synecdoche, because the government and Whitehall are formally related, but Whitehall, being a set of buildings, can't actually speak.
As a special case of metonymy we have "Totum pro parte" which is used when something is named because it's a part of something else, i.e. the way we use America to mean the US, or Europe when we might means only the European Union. The alternative is "Pars pro toto" where a part-name is given to a whole, e.g. some people will say England meaning Great Britain or United Kingdom, or even Rome for the Roman Empire.
What we have above are are just some ways to categorise words, which is a topic called taxonomy (the science of classification). In its simplest form a taxonomy is a tree structure of 'parent-child' relationships, as seen below.