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Using Spanish Synonyms.

Using Spanish Synonyms. By R. E. BATCHELOR. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1994. viii + 721 pp. 50 [pounds sterling] (paperbound 16.95 [pounds sterling]).

As well as an excellent chance to enrich their vocabulary, this book offers English-speaking students of Spanish useful assistance with the difficult problem of choosing the right word or phrase for a specific context and style. The book is organized by semantic 'frames', such as comico, comida, comision, compensacion. Under each of these headings appear a series of synonyms, near-synonyms, or closely associated words (for example, under comision we are given comite, coordinadora, delegacion, junta, tribunal) with their English equivalents and Spanish phrases or sentences exemplifying their different uses. The average number of entries per frame is twelve, but in numerous cases this number is much exceeded. There are four indexes: Spanish-Spanish, English-Spanish, Argentine-Spanish, Mexican-Spanish. As these indexes show, the book offers Peninsular and also Argentine and Mexican synonyms; in this sense it is refreshingly international in orientation, but perhaps not as generically 'Spanish-American' as the blurb suggests.

Typographically the book is attractive and well organized and it makes good use of bold and italic type in different sizes to guide the reader through what could easily become (and in many similar works does become) an off-putting labyrinth of definitions and examples. The strongest feature is the clear exposition of differences of register, and it is this which makes the book especially valuable. All the Spanish entries are labelled R3 ('high degree of formality'), R2 ('neutral'), R1 ('colloquial'), R1* ('vulgar'); 'A certain movement between these levels is noted by R3-R2 and R2-R1.' For example, we find under abogado synonyms ranging from letrado (R3) to picapleitos (R1). In general this is extremely helpful and it will certainly assist many students in avoiding those misjudgements of register that afflict the Spanish of even the best non-native speakers. On the other hand, the four-term categorization is inevitably often rather crude. The semantic frame pecho inevitably contains a rich set of vulgarisms, duly labelled R1*. But the fact is that some (such as, tetorras, tetas) sound a good deal coarser than others (cantimploras, melones), and this fact is not always made clear. Vulgar language no doubt has its poetry and fascination, but one advertises its charms to foreigners at their peril. Presumably one can do little about this except to implore them not to use words marked with an asterisk. Some are vulgar but funny; others are vulgar and not funny. All will sound more vulgar with a foreign accent than with a native one, even when the foreigner speaks good Spanish.

In a few cases (very few) the book fails to make clear that a word is not so much high register as no longer (or barely) in use: for example gaban, yantar, espejuelos (the latter is flagged 'neutral' for 'glasses', but what Peninsular speaker would nowadays say pasame los espjuelos for pasame las gafas, the latter also marked 'neutral'?). But one is hard put to find other examples of this failing. It is always possible to fault books like this one by trying to discover significant omissions, but no one could claim that at 721 pages this collection is too short. What is most encouraging is that it inspires great confidence by its sensitivity to usage. There appear to be no significant errors of idiom: I discovered no mistakes in a fairly large sample of examples (at least in the Peninsular examples; only Argentines or Mexicans can speak for the others), and it is clear that the author has gone to great lengths to check his findings against the reactions of numerous native speakers from various parts of the Spanish world.

This is an excellent book, which adds much to the work done by the compilers of the standard dictionaries by focusing on a generous range of frequently-used words and clarifying the relationships between them: something that dictionaries inevitably fail to do, or fail to do clearly. It very much deserves to become a standard reference work for advanced learners of Spanish.

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Author:Rodriguez, Antonia Moreira
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1997
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