Synonyms. A Semantic Study of Appointment and Engagement

Term Paper 2009 30 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Aim

3. Method and Material

4. Synonyms

5. Definition and Usage of Engagement and Appointment
5.1 Definition and Usage of Appointment
5.2 Definition and Usage of Engagement

6. Do Native Speakers Think Appointment and Engagement Synonymous?

7. Corpus-based Analysis
7.1 Distribution of Engagement and Appointment in the Bank of English
7.2 Collocations Containing Appointment and Engagement

8. Conclusion

Primary Sources
Secondary Sources


1. Introduction

(1) I´m on my way to an engagement. (Merriam-Webster 1984: 289)
(2) I´m on my way to an appointment. (Merriam-Webster 1984: 290)

In most of the existing languages we can find words, which sound different but have identical meanings. These words are called synonyms. The word synonym comes from Ancient Greek syn meaning ‘with’ and onoma meaning ‘name’. But can two words really have exactly the same meaning? Fromkin et al. does not agree with this definition, he states that no two words ever have exactly the same meaning even if they are synonyms (2003:181). Therefore synonyms are words carrying nearly similar meanings and whose usage is bound to the context. This means that one has to be careful in choosing a word; it might not carry the same meaning as the writer intended. Translation often causes irritation about which of the words fits better in a specific sentence. Especially the non-native speakers have a lot of problems in deciding which of the words is more suitable to use in a certain context and they have to face the question if any one of these words is suitable in any context. But also native speaker are not always sure about the correct use of two synonymous words. Appointment and engagement are two words with a similar sense to the common mind and share many semantic properties. In the thesaurus both words are said to be synonymous and when applying the definition above, we may agree with it. But do appointment and engagement really have exactly the same meaning? In this essay I want to work out the differences and similarities of the words appointment and engagement and if they can be considered synonymous anyway. Therefore I will have a closer look at their definition in different dictionaries and a questionnaire distributed to native speakers will be analyzed. Furthermore, a comparative analysis will be brought out, based on a corpus study of the two nouns. This analysis will be limited to their frequency and their collocates. Throughout the essay both words will be italicized and the complete results can be found in the appendix.

2. Aim

The overall aim of this essay is to investigate the difference in usage of appointment and engagement to find out whether they can be considered synonymous or not. The analysis will be based on material extracted from the British National Corpus, a questionnaire distributed to native speakers and different English dictionaries. My hypothesis is that appointment and engagement can be used interchangeably in some contexts but they predominantly carry different meanings.

The difference I usage will be presented on different levels. The guiding research questions are the following:

- How do the words differ in their denotation?
- To what extent are the two words synonymous? Can they really be used interchangeably?
- Are the two nouns used to the same extent or is one noun treated more favourably?
- Do the words occur with the same collocates?

It is not my intention to present an exhaustive account of all aspects of usage, synonymy and collocates. The study is limited to the most frequent patterns of usage with focus on the leading questions above.

3. Method and Material

To get an overview of the definitions and the usage of appointment and engagement I started my research by studying dictionaries. Five dictionaries have been used on that account: the Cambridge Advanced Learner´s Dictionary, the Oxford Advanced Learner´s Dictionary, Webster´s Online Dictionary, Oxford Reference Online and the Online Etymology Dictionary. The obtained information about the word´s etymology and meaning were reported as well as their appearances in expressions and compounds. It was important to gain a deeper insight into the usage of appointment and engagement. This was done with the help of native speakers. Since they learn the usage of English words from childhood on I considered them a reliable source for the collection of data. The informants, all of British origin, were asked to compare phrases and to answer questions concerning synonymy and context usage. To describe how these two terms are used in actual speech and writing the British National Corpus (BNC) was used for data collection. The BNC is a text database of 100 million tokens covering samples from both written and spoken British English seen as representing current usage. The corpus provides information about the words frequency and the words collocating with appointment and engagement.

The whole collection of material makes it possible to find out whether the two terms occur with different connotations. The collected data is used to distinguish the different connotations of the two terms and when they can be considered synonymous. The findings will be summarized in tables in the different sections of the paper. The analyzed corpus material has been compared in order to answer the questions asked in the section two.

4. Synonyms

Does he wear a turban, a fez or a hat? Does he sleep on a mattress, a bed or a mat, or a Cot, The Akond of Swat? Can he write a letter concisely clear, Without a speck or a smudge or smear or Blot, The Akond of Swat?

Edward Lear, The Akond of Swat

The word synonym originates from Greek and means ‘same name’. (Crystal 1995:164) Often it is not easy to grasp a definition of synonymy, because of some vague explanations given by different linguists. Many researchers do not agree with the simple explanation that synonyms are words that sound different but have the same or nearly the same meaning. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synonym) This explanation night sound easy and quite logical, but it is not really accepted amongst semanticists, who argue that no two words ever have exactly the same meaning. Many apparent synonyms differ with respect to the speech communities which use them, or the terms with which they collocate. For example, autumn and fall differ because the former is used in British English and the latter in American English; rancid more likely collocates with bacon or butter, whereas stale collocates with beer, milk or other types of food. The differences between two apparently similar words seem to be determinable by reference to either the populations who use them or the context of their use.

Even Crystal states that the definition of synonymy depends much on the context and, in addition to this, on individual lexemes: “it is usually possible to find some nuance which separates them, or a context in which one of the lexemes can appear but the other(s) cannot”. (Crystal 1995:164)

Cruse (2004) agrees that synonyms do not necessarily have to express the same meaning in every context. He provides us three subtypes of synonymy, the absolute synonyms, the propositional synonyms and the near-synonyms. The first subtype means synonyms, which are completely identical in their meaning. (Cruse 2004:154) These absolute synonyms very rarely occur in language. The examples given by him are kick the bucket, die and pass away - which all express ‘the dying of a living thing’. Problems occur when we have to use one of these words in order to express our condolences. Kick the bucket does not seem to be an appropriate choice. Only pass away seems to be a suitable alternative. As you can see, even those absolute synonyms differ in the appropriateness of their contextual surroundings. Real absolute synonyms, which can be exchanged in every imaginable context and situations, seem to be very hard to find. The propositional synonyms, Cruse´s second subtype (Cruse 2004:155), refer to the meanings of whole phrases or sentences. They can be exchanged paradigmatically in a sentence without changing the meaning of it. In the sentence He is tuning his violin/fiddle. The nouns violin and fiddle are propositional synonyms as they refer to the same musical instrument but cannot be regarded absolute synonyms, due to their different degree of formality. The third subtype mentioned by Cruse, the near synonyms, seems to be difficult to define. Cruse explains: “it is not obvious what principle underlies the distinction between near-synonymy and non-synonymy.” (Cruse 2004:156) Near synonyms are not collocationally interchangeable, which means that they cannot be freely substituted in an expression. Furthermore, they are restricted to certain stylistic, conceptual or contextual conditions. Pretty and handsome for example both mean ‘good-looking’. Handsome is bound to men, whereas pretty is used in reference to women. Therefore, both words cannot be absolute synonyms or propositional synonyms as they belong to different concepts. They seem to be near-synonyms, due to the fact that they mean the same thing but cannot be used in the same context and are not interchangeably in a sentence.

5. Definition and Usage of Engagement and Appointment

When you try to find synonyms on the internet you can use different search engines. One of the most famous engines is Roget´s Thesaurus. The Thesaurus lists engagement among the synonyms for appointment and appointment among the synonyms for engagement. Therefore, both words seem to be synonyms but more information is required. In this part of the paper I will have a closer look at the etymology of the terms since it reveals the origin of the words, when they first entered the English language and what meaning they carried back then. Different dictionaries were used to get the required information. The abbreviations in this chapter refer to the following dictionaries:

CALD = Cambridge Advanced Learner´s Dictionary OALD = Oxford Advanced Learner´s Dictionary

WOD = Webster´s Online Dictionary ORO = Oxford Reference Online OED = Online Etymology Dictionary

5.1 Definition and Usage of Appointment

Appointment was first recorded in the English language in 1417. The meaning ‘agreement or arrangement for a meeting’ first occurred in 1530 and the sense of ‘act of placing in office’ developed in 1658. Further back the word has its origin old French apointier meaning ‘to arrange, settle, place’, from apointer meaning ‘duly, fitly’ and from the phrase á point, which means ‘to the point’. (OED)

The CALD defines appointment as ‘a formal arrangement to meet or visit someone at a particular time and place’.

The CALD adds the additional expressions:

1. to keep an appointment: ‘remember to be present’
2. to miss an appointment: ‘not been present at’
3. by appointment: ‘at a previously arranged time’
4. by appointment to the Queen: ‘(in the UK) used by manufacturers to indicate that their products are sold to the Queen and are therefore of guaranteed quality’
5. power of appointment: ‘ (Law) power to decide the disposal of property, in exercise of a right conferred by the owner; power to select the holder of a particular job or position’

OALD divides the usage of appointment in three. The first meaning is ‘a formal arrangement to meet or visit someone at a particular time, especially for a reason connected with their work: She made an appointment for her son to see the doctor.’ The second meaning is ‘the act of choosing a person for a job or position and the fact of being chosen for a job: his appointment as principal’. The last meaning occurs especially in British English, meaning ‘a job or position of responsibility: The department wished him success in his new appointment as sales manager.’ Appointment can be countable and uncountable. In the first and the third meaning it is always countable.

WOD lists six different usages of appointment:

1. ‘The act of putting a person into a non-elective position: e.g. The appointment had to be approved by the whole committee.’
2. ‘A meeting arranged in advance: e.g. She asked how to avoid kissing at the end of a date.’
3. ‘(usually plural) furnishings and equipment (especially for a ship or hotel).’
4. ‘A person who is appointed to a job or position.’
5. ‘The job to which you are (or hope to be) appointed: e.g. he applied for an appointment in the treasury.’
6. ‘(law) the act of disposing of property by virtue of the power of appointment: e.g. She allocated part of the trust to her church by appointment.’

Synonyms given by the WOD are appointee, assignment, date, engagement, designation, fitting and naming.

ORO lists four different usages:

1. ‘an arrangement to meet someone at a particular time and place: e.g. she made an appointment with my receptionist.’
2. ‘an act of assigning a job or position to someone: e.g. his appointment as President.’
3. ‘a job or position: e.g. she took up an appointment as head of communications.
4. ‘a person appointed to a job or position’
5. ‘(appointments ) furniture or fittings: e.g. the room was spartan in its appointments.’

The WOD lists the following collocations: appointment book, appointment calendar, to hold an appointment, new appointment, to make an appointment with, to have an appointment, by appointment.

It appears from the abovementioned definitions, appointment means ‘a formal arrangement to meet’, ‘a job or position’, ‘the action of choosing a person for a job or the process of being chosen’ and in its plural form it means ‘furniture and fittings’. In 1417 appointment occurred in English Language for the first time. Until today the meaning has not changed. Appointment can be both countable and uncountable and is used in several fixed expressions with certain preferences when it comes to adjacent words.



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
564 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Leipzig
Synonyms Semantic Study Appointment Engagement



Title: Synonyms. A Semantic Study of Appointment and Engagement