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Gorse and furze

May 22, 2017

A couple of weeks ago I went with some chums for a weekend away in Dorset. We took a walk over the heath to Studland Bay, and all the gorse bushes were ablaze with yellow flowers. I say ‘gorse bushes’, but I could just as well have said ‘furze bushes’, for I remember being told as a boy that gorse and furze are synonyms, and moreover the only true synonyms in the English language. That is, they refer to the exact same specific thing without any differences in connotation or nuance. There are plenty of near synonyms, like small and little, for example. But those two are not exact synonyms, because little indicates some kind of emotional attitude (a lovely little house; a horrible little man; a nice little treat; a stupid little wanker), whereas small doesn’t. So they are not interchangeable. Leopard and panther are zoologically synonymous, I believe, but would be used in different contexts, panther sounding more literary and poetic. So they are not interchangeable either. But gorse and furze are interchangeable, absolutely and always.

Is it true, though, that there are no other exact synonyms in English? Let me know if you know any.

P.S. May I bring to your attention my comic fantasy YA novel The Infinite Powers of Adam Gowers – here is the link: https://unbound.com/books/adam-gowers . Go there and you will see a neat little 2-minute video of me explaining why the time for this novel has come! And if you support it you will get your name in the back and an invitation to the launch party.

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4 Comments
  1. Simon Carter permalink

    Can we return to flammable / inflammable? There may be a difference between possums and opossums but I don’t know what it is!

  2. I had thought that originally ‘small’ described volume and ‘little’ quantity – like ‘klein’ and ‘wenig’ in German. A small boy. A little milk with your tea, vicar? This clear distinction then became blurred – e.g. a little boy, a small amount of something. The two words are becoming synonymous, but were not originally.

    Panther – I had thought only referred to black leopards/jaguars. The OED tells me I’m wrong. Interesting.

    Perfect synonyms – can’t think of any.

    Very interesting stuff as always, thanks! I’m learning a lot from your blog and I appreciate it.

  3. John Dunn permalink

    I am not convinced that ‘gorse’ and ‘furze’ are exact synonyms, since they are regionally distinct. According to Clive Upton and J.D.A. Widdowson’s Atlas of English Dialects (O.U.P., 1996) ‘furze’ is restricted to parts of southern and south-western England (Map 68, pp. 136-7). It is not a word I would ever think of using myself, presumably because those are regions of the U.K. where I happen to have spent very little time, and I would suggest that if you do decide to use ‘furze’, you are not making an arbitrary choice between two interchangeable words, but instead are making, intentionally or otherwise, a statement about regional identity. Sorry.

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