Q: While binging on The Bridge, I was surprised at how I could sometimes almost understand the dialogue in the Nordic TV series. So I signed up for a Swedish word-of-the-day, which leads to my question. Is there a term for words like “earring” and örhänge (ear hanger) that describe the same thing in different ways?
A: Two terms that have similar meanings in the same language, whether conceptually similar or not, are considered synonyms. Two terms that are semantically similar in different languages, whether similar in concept or not, are interlingual or bilingual synonyms.
So “earring” in English and örhänge in Swedish are interlingual synonyms. Interestingly, the term in two other Nordic languages, Norwegian and Danish, is ørering, which is conceptually similar to the English word. However, the term in another Nordic language, Icelandic, is conceptually different from all the others: eyrnalokkur (ear lure).
As it turns out, there were at least three different terms for an earring in Old English, and each was conceptually different: earpreon (ear pin), earspinl (ear spindle), and earhring (ear ring).
One could perhaps argue that the modern terms “earring,” örhänge, and ørering are conceptually “hyponyms” of the “hypernym” eyrnalokkur. A “hyponym” is a word whose meaning is included in the meaning of a more general word, a “hypernym” or “superordinate.” So “earring,” örhänge, or ørering might be seen as a specific typs of ear lure (or allurement) within the general term eyrnalokkur.
Of course many synonyms might better be described as near synonyms, since they’re “polysemous” (have multiple meanings) and not all the meanings coincide. For instance, “slip” and “trip” can be synonyms for an error, but they have other senses that aren’t alike.
In looking into your question, we came across a study by two researchers about the difficulty in programming computers to translate polysemous words: “Near-Synonymy and Lexical Choice,” by Philip Edmonds and Graeme Hirst (Computational Linguistics, June 2002). As they write, “Choosing the right word can be difficult for people, let alone present-day computer systems.”
We’ve written before about two linguistic relatives of hyponymy and hypernymy. In a 2009 post, we discuss “synecdoche” and “metonymy,” figures of speech in which one thing is used to represent another. In both of these rhetorical figures, the original term and the substitute are closely identified or associated with each other.
With, “synecdoche,” a part is used to represent the whole or vice versa. Examples commonly cited are the use of “hand” to mean a sailor and “the cavalry” to mean a single trooper. With “metonymy,” the substituted word is not a part (or an extension) of the original but something associated with it. Classic examples are “the crown” to represent the monarchy and “the sword” to represent military power.