English is Such a Rich, Rich Language…and So Cute

Posted August 17, 2012 by Kathy Davie in Author Resources, Editing, Self-Editing, Writing

In reviewing a book, it came to me how incredibly rich the English language is with its minute shades of meaning. I was all set to use my standby, “cute”, to describe a children’s story when I reconsidered. It wasn’t a “cute” story. A boy’s family had been kidnapped, and he’s being chased across the countryside by a pack of wild, ferociously intelligent dogs while he’s trying to rescue his family. It’s not cute.

So, it’s to the old reliable, the thesaurus with its wealth of alternatives: endearing, adorable, lovable, sweet, lovely, appealing, engaging, delightful, dear, darling, winning, winsome, attractive, pretty, cutesy, and twee.

All these words are synonyms for cute which, in this instance, means attractive in a pretty or endearing way. Yet, endearing and adorable inspire love and affection; lovable inspires love and affection; sweet is pleasing in general; appealing is attractive or interesting; engaging is charming and attractive; delightful causes delight; dear is regarded with deep affection or cherished; darling is beloved; winning is attractive and endearing; winsome is attractive or appealing in appearance or character; attractive is pleasing or appealing to the senses; pretty is attractive in a delicate way; cutesy is mawkishly sentimental; and, twee is excessively or affectedly quaint.

Imagine creating a sentence with the word cute and then substituting each of these synonyms in its place. How the meaning of that sentence would subtly change its meaning or imply the sex or age of the speaker:

Oh, isn’t that cute! You can just see the puppy/bunny/kitten the speaker sees.
Oh, isn’t that endearing! Huh? Who talks like that?
Oh, isn’t that adorable! You just know someone is looking at a cute little scene. It could be a boy cuddled up with his dog. Or a little girl dressed up in a sweet little dress.
Oh, isn’t that lovable! Well, the closest I can imagine is someone eyeing a cute sweater.
Oh, isn’t that sweet! Another “adorable”.
Oh, isn’t that appealing! There’s a bit of consideration in this one. Perhaps someone is looking for a house to buy or a boat.
Oh, isn’t that engaging! Well, I don’t know anyone who would use it that way, but it does sound rather like the speaker is considering what s/he sees.
Oh, isn’t that delightful! Sounds like a response to someone’s explaining their vacation plans.
Oh, isn’t that dear! I cannot imagine a man or woman saying this. I can, however, imagine a grandmotherly woman saying it. It would be more likely to refer to the price of something used this way.
Oh, isn’t that darling! This sounds like a 1950s woman exclaiming over a cute outfit or a house.
Oh, isn’t that winning! Sounds more like a question.
Oh, isn’t that winsome! Uh, no.
Oh, isn’t that attractive! This could swing two ways: a mild appreciation or total sarcasm.
Oh, isn’t that pretty! A comment on a landscape, an outfit, a little girl’s dress, the decoration of a room.
Oh, isn’t that cutesy! Well, back to the tourist trap for more knickknacks…
Oh, isn’t that twee! A comment about something being too overdone in cute sentimentality.

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Image courtesy of Man vyi via Wikimedia Commons

A cute cottage on Jersey.

Each one of these words is a synonym for “cute” and yet they don’t all work as a substitute. The point I’m trying to make is that just because a word is a synonym and, technically, means the same as that word, it doesn’t. It’s English. The English language has absorbed so many words from other languages and there are so many shades of meaning to each of these words.

When choosing a word, examine those shades. Be sure the word you are choosing really conveys the intention you want to imply.

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