Friday, September 16, 2011

What’s in a synonym?

I place the blame for my regular indecision over which shower gel to buy squarely on the shoulders of 11th century Normans.

It was common in the Middle Ages for invading forces to replace the existing culture, religion, language etc. with their own, so as to not leave people in any doubt over who was in charge and prevent any patriotic resurgence.

But not the Normans that invaded England from France in 1066, oh no. Rather than cement their dominance through forcefully replacing the existing language they just let the peasants use the existing Saxon words while the elite used French, and we thus have many words duplicating the same meaning.

Many say we owe the Normans a debt of gratitude for a colourful language replete with a multiplicity of synonyms; I say, look how it has complicated the personal hygiene industry.

My particular dilemma is centred around how I want to feel after taking a shower. While shopping for shower gel I was confronted by two bottles of product of the same brand. One of which was blue and, according to the label, would ‘invigorate,’ (from the Latin, invigorare) the other was green and would ‘energize’ (from the Middle French √©nergie). After consulting a dictionary I found the only significant difference between the two words was their spelling.

But then why make two almost identical but not quite products? Looking along the shelf I realized that all brands sold gels that were the same in almost every way but labelled with a different synonym. Competition between brands I can understand, but for a company to sell products that compete against itself—how does that help anyone?

Having a multiplicity of synonyms raises questions (or queries, same thing) over which words to use. The ‘vernacular’ we use is almost identical to the ‘dialect’ we use—both defined as how people in a specific region speak. Perhaps ‘purchased’ fits the rhythm of a sentence better than ‘bought’—both of which are defined as “to obtain/acquire for money or its equivalent” in the American Heritage dictionary.

Unable to discern the difference with intellect only, I decided on a practical research solution. I purchased one and bought the other.

For the first week I lathered myself daily with the blue shower gel and felt undeniably invigorated—but, in all fairness, I also felt energized. And when I switched to the light green gel I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel, as per the label, totally energised—but also more than a little invigorated.

The bottom line here is that they produced the same result regardless of the adjective on the bottle or the colour of the contents. So if they do the same thing and the adjectives mean the same thing why don’t the companies in question save themselves a lot of effort and me a lot of confusion by just selling a single shower gel?

And how did such a plethora (excess, overabundance, glut) of products identical in all but adjective and colour come into being?
“How many shower gels should we put on the market?”
“Well, how did our test subjects report feeling after their shower?”
“Err, one of them said they felt invigorated.”
“Great. Look up all the synonyms for invigorated and that’s how many products we launch. Good job I took history, those Normans knew a thing or two about marketing.”

I submit therefore that despite the company’s inability to choose a single descriptive word and stick with it, that it is impossible to have a shower and not feel both invigorated and energized. Refreshed even. Which, incidentally, derives from Old French and is available in lilac.

Having eliminated the adjective and the colour, I turned to the ingredients. It might be that I am not sensitive enough to differentiate between the advertised sensations but its true their ingredients are not exactly the same. ‘Invigorate’ had identical ingredients as ‘energise’ with one added exception—Tetrasodium. Tetrasodium, a miracle of modern-day chemistry—guaranteed to invigorate without energising.

Then again, only ‘energize’ contains Polyquaternium-7 so maybe that’s what gives energise a different, if unidentifiable, shower experience. But Polyquaternium-2 (which one can only assume is a close relative of Polyquaternium-7) is found in another of the almost identical gels, only this one’s called ‘relax’—a word that is, to any linguist ancient or modern, the complete opposite of energise. I showered in ‘relax’ and felt both invigorated and energized, though confusingly, I could have also quite easily taken a nap.

What about natural ingredients? ‘Invigorate’ contained natural lemon oil and spearmint, whereas ‘energize’ contained lemon grass and citrus lime. Maybe its common instinct for all members of the animal kingdom to know that to be invigorated you suck on a lemon, but to be energized you suck on lemon grass, but this nuance was lost on my freshly bathed person.

Why brands of shower gel have multiple flavours—all of which simultaneously do something that is both different and exactly the same as their related products—eludes me. Though I admit to being perplexed as to why none of them advertise themselves as being good at making me clean (unsoiled, spotless…sparkling?). Which is generally my reason for showering.