The English language is full of examples of multiple words having the same meaning.

But these “synonyms” aren’t always used the same way in every day conversation.

Here are a few random sets of words that kind of have the same meaning, but kind of don’t, accompanied by my two cents on the way they’re used.

•Sofa and couch.

A sofa is soft and cushy, while a couch is somewhat firmer and less fancy.

A sofa is something you fix up with nice bedding so your favorite uncle’s daughter has a comfy place to sleep. A couch is where a man who’s in trouble with his wife sleeps for the night.

A sofa is something you might see in a furniture store showroom with a “special financing” tag on it. A couch is something you might see sitting next to a roach with a “free” sign taped to it.

•Clothing and apparel.

Clothing is practical and basic, while apparel is more elegant and specialized.

Clothing is what you wear to work in the yard or go to the store. Apparel is what you put on when you’re going out with your spouse or attending an annual company function.

Clothing can be purchased at a thrift store or yard sale. Apparel is found in department stores or online.

•Kill and slay.

You kill a possum or a terrorist, but you slay a dragon or a warrior.

If you make a great batch of lasagna, someone might say you “killed it.” If you do a great job of singing a song, someone might say you “slayed it.”

•Do and enact.

Regular people do things, while politicians and diplomats enact things.

•Cold and frigid.

Cold is when you have to put on a heavier jacket and bring in a bit more firewood, while frigid is when the water in the dog’s water bowl becomes a block of ice and your truck won’t start.

When your spouse gives you the cold shoulder, it’s probably temporary. If your spouse turns frigid on you, you’re likely looking at a little bit longer-lasting situation (or maybe even permanent).

•Right and correct.

A person arguing about their political views claims to be right, while an answer on a math test can be correct.

•Mad and furious.

You get mad when your dog won’t stop barking. You get furious when your bank account has been hacked.

Mad is how you feel when a referee makes a bad call against your favorite team. Furious is how you feel if it costs your team the game.

You might get mad if your kid takes your SUV one night without asking. You might get furious if the vehicle has large dents in it when it returns.

•Little and small.

A puppy is little and a baby elephant is small.

Having dinner at your friend’s house, you might ask for a “small amount” of asparagus, while you might request “just a little” chocolate cake.

•Hide and conceal.

A child might hide while playing a game. An adult might conceal a weapon.

A person might hide their worst secrets, while a government conceals classified information.

•Big and immense.

An adult German Shepard is big and a blue whale is immense.

A mature pecan tree is big and a 1,500-year-old redwood tree is immense.

Your credit card debt might be big, but the U.S. government’s debt is immense.

One of the most interesting things about the way synonymous words are used it that there are no official guidelines. In general, people just inherently know when to use what word to convey a certain meaning that might bear a subtle difference to that of a synonym.

That’s just another amazing and unique aspect of the world’s most complex and versatile language.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Contact him by phone at 417-967-2000 or by email at ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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