This article on French synonyms originally appeared on this blog on September 5, 2013. Text, images, and formatting have been updated.
I recently read an article in an issue of the French magazine Science & Vie, and I was struck by the number of synonyms that the writer used for grands arbres (“large trees”). In fact, I can’t recall ever reading a similar article in English with as many alternate ways of describing the article’s subject.
The article describes how the giant species of the world’s forests, such as sequoia, eucalyptus, pokok gergasi, and baobab, are disappearing at an alarming rate.
All plants, but large trees especially, are essential for Earth’s many ecosystems. They provide habitats for innumerable animal and insect species and take enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
French Synonyms, Metaphors, and “Lexical Stand-Ins”
The French reporter who wrote the article, Lise Barnéoud, used a tactic that many French writers seem to like, even in articles about concrete subjects (trees, in this case).
Instead of repeatedly writing “large trees” or the Latin name for each tree, the writer used synonyms and metaphors. But not just two or three variations—17 different phrasings for “large trees,” to be exact. Quand même !
I wish I had the data to back up my gut feeling, but I don’t think this technique is anywhere near as common in English. It’s but one of the many differences between French and English writing styles. Some of Barnéoud’s choices—such as rois des forêts—are unsurprising. You can easily imagine an American writer doing the same.
Other choices are poetic (or overwrought, depending upon your point of view), such as cathédrales végétales (“plant cathedrals”).
“Vers la fin des grands arbres.” Science et Vie. Août 2013.
What about in your language? Can writers use synonyms and metaphors to this degree? Or does it come across as forced or overdone? Let me know in the comments below.
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