Accessibility links

Breaking News

July 29, 2004 - Confusing Synonyms and Confounding Political Terms - 2004-07-28

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: July 29, 2004

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on Wordmaster: we answer a few questions from listeners that really call for a dictionary editor.

RS: We called Peter Sokolowski, associate editor at the nation's oldest dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster, for some help.

AA: A listener by the name of Atefeh Aghaei asked about the meaning of the word “unconditional.”

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "It means absolute or unqualified. And in English, of course, there are always idioms associated with words. And unconditional love is one of the best of the idioms that come up very frequently with this word. But also it's used for unconditional surrender, and that was the famous phrase from 1945 at the end of the World War Two. And also most recently in the news we see unconditional release, meaning the release of prisoners without their being harmed."

RS: "In this one, this next one, what the listener wants to know is the difference between festival and carnival."

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "Festival really comes from the word feast, from the Latin, feast meaning a holy day, a holy feast. And carnival comes from the Latin 'carne levare' which means to raise or to remove meat, and that's the time before Easter called Lent where you abstain from eating meat. And it's interesting that the end of Lent is, of course, the feast of Easter.

"So what's interesting is these two words are sort of wrapped up together. The basic way to distinguish these words is that festival is much more general. You can use festival to say folk festival, arts festival, film festival, whereas there are two very specific senses of carnival. One is that pre-Lenten festival or celebration that we mentioned. The other is sort of an enterprise or place where there are amusements. And in America they might be traveling carnivals, something that would come from town to town and have maybe a carousel or I think of a lot of cotton candy and, uh ... "

AA: "And if you eat too much of that cotton candy, you might get sick. Or ill."


AA: "Which brings us to our next question, from Alibek Suyumov, who wants to know, 'Could you please tell me what the difference is between the words sick and ill.'"

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "Sick and ill. You know, that's a great question. Again, two words that basically mean bad health, but just like festival and carnival, one of them is a little bit more general than the other, and in this case it's sick. We have many idioms in English that refer to bad health that aren't referring to a specific ailment or a specific disease. Like we would say 'I've been worried sick about you,' meaning that I'm very worried about you. 'I'm sick and tired of this.' And when someone talks about being ill, often it's a little bit more clinical or a little bit more technical. We say mentally ill or we say gravely ill, and it sounds a little bit more specific.

"Now there are secondary uses that are not quite so synonymous between sick and ill. In the case of sick, you could say 'that was a sick joke' or 'he has a sick sense of humor' or 'he's a very sick person,' which means he's disturbed or abnormal or maybe has a sense of humor that we don't approve of. It can mean mean, as in unfriendly. But with the word ill, you have the notion of ill will, which also means unfriendly. Or ill omen means unlucky."

RS: "Or ill-advised."

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "Ill-advised, exactly. These are very specifically bad things."

AA: But there was something specifically good about talking to a dictionary editor this week, with the Democratic convention in Boston. We wondered if any political terms in the news have sent people to the free dictionary online at

PETER SOKOLOWSKI: "You know, one of the big words that is looked up frequently is democracy, because it's an abstract concept and it's something that folks need to sometimes remind themselves, and it's a word that is looked up quite frequently. One word that is very high this week is blog, and blog, of course, means a Web log, or a sort of journal kept on the Internet.

"And this is the first political convention to which many folks who maintain blogs, or bloggers as they're called, have been invited as journalists to record the events. So that word is very high on our list, and I'm very sorry to say it's such a new word it's not quite in our dictionary yet. [Laughter] But another word that came up is incumbent. Also the word stump, as in stump speech, I believe."

AA: "Incumbent, meaning the person who's currently in office, holding the office."

RS: "And stump, where a politician stands to give his speech."

AA: "Like a tree stump, because that's what they used to do, is stand on top of an old tree stump.”

RS: "So they can be seen."

PETER SOKOLOWKI: "Exactly. But a couple of other words if you just go back a week that came up that can broadly be called political, the word czar was looked up quite a lot last week, when the 9-11 Commission report brought up the notion of perhaps a new cabinet-level position which some people call the 'intelligence czar.' And czar, of course, comes from Caesar, meaning the sort of emperor, and it's the same root as the word in German 'kaiser,' and it means the leader."

AA: Peter Sokolowski is associate editor at Merriam-Webster. He invites you to visit the company's Web site at [also,]. You can look up words and also hear how to pronounce them.

RS: Our address here is And, if you have any questions or comments for us, e-mail them to Please tell us where you are from and how to pronounce your name.

With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.