Not Really

Writing a clue the other day for SPINELESS, I was prompted to ask myself a question similar to one which I have idly pondered before without reaching a conclusion. Could ‘gutless’ be used to define SPINELESS (or vice versa)? Chambers Dictionary ascribes very similar meanings to the two words, and the Chambers Thesaurus indicates that in the sense of ‘weak’ or ‘cowardly’ they are synonymous, but knowledge of the real world tells us that lacking a spine is very different from lacking a gut. Similar considerations apply to NUTS and BANANAS, and those despicable SWINE, DOGS, RATS and LICE.

What the question boils down to is whether a word which has a figurative sense can be considered synonymous with another word which has the same – also figurative – sense. And whether the fact that their literal meanings are blatantly different has any bearing on the issue. I think this second point is probably key, because whilst defining LOUSE by ‘rat’ seems counterintuitive, ‘scab’ seems somehow a more acceptable definition, just as ‘yellow’ would be for SPINELESS.

The ‘substitution test’ would have us believe that there isn’t a problem: “He’s a complete louse” and “He’s a complete rat” have exactly the same meaning, neither involving the chap in question being anything other than a man, just a despicable one.

So I think it’s fair to say that if we were to rule that a rat cannot be a louse, then we must disallow a whole raft of other apparent synonyms (NETTLE and BUG etc). I think that would be wholly inappropriate, this being a situation where one simply has to focus on a specific sense of each word, though I’m still not sure I could bring myself to define SPINELESS by ‘gutless’. Having answered my own question, I opted to use the figurative, but slightly less contradictory, ‘chicken’.

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