Sometimes there are a pair of words that seem to be pretty much identical. They might use the same letters, or be synonyms, or just sound very similar. One could be excused, then, for substituting one for the other. But the English language is a harsh mistress. It is just waiting for you to slip up so it can insert a meaning you had no intention of conveying and ruin your life. Don’t believe me? Well it just so happens, as usual, I have chopped this up into easy to swallow fact-lets for you.
Let’s look at a simple one. Boyfriend/Girlfriend vs. boy friend and girl friend. Seems like a little difference, just a wee little space and a hint of an inflection, but trust me when I say that you do not want to get it wrong. If you are a little boy in grammar school and you tell your dad you are going to be bringing your boyfriend over for dinner, Papa might be having an extra one of his special beverages that night. Alright, to be perfectly frank, you probably wouldn’t be saying that as a boy. Due to a bizarre chromosomal-lexical distinction, the terms have very definite usages depending on gender. A boy will call all of his associates, male or female, “friends.” There is only one girlfriend… at least as far as she knows. The phrases boy friend and girl friend basically don’t exist. Meanwhile, girls have an awful lot of girl friends – though certain very awesome girls might have a girlfriend or two – and only one boyfriend. (Again, as far as he knows.) So since no one seems to say “boy friend” that earlier example I put together was just a flimsy excuse for a homophobia joke. So sue me. (Don’t really sue me.)
Let’s take a step away from the world of gender relations and into the world of cuisine. Imagine if you will that you are in the mood for a pastry of some kind. You take a glance at the menu and find that they have both sweet breads and sweetbreads. No big difference, right? Well, if you order sweet breads, they’ll ask if you want cake or raisin bread or banana bread. Ask for sweetbreads and they’ll ask if you want the throat, heart, or stomach of a calf. Not exactly what you want to be dunking in your coffee, is it? If you’ve got any Italian in your heritage, you might refer to tomato sauce as gravy (or possibly red gravy.) That’s all well and good when you are among your peers, but head someplace without the same adorably ethnic phraseology and you’ll end up with a big bowl of spaghetti with brown gravy on it. Word order is important, too. Let’s go back to breakfast for this one. If you’re after a cheese danish, don’t ask for danish cheese or you’re liable to get a big wedge of fynbo instead. By the way, what’s the deal with the cheese in a cheese danish not being a Danish cheese? Maybe I want a little tilsit with my morning oj! And while we are in the subject of Danish cheese (Let’s face it, how often am I going to end up in this area?) there’s one last minor distinction you need to be mindful of. Tae Bo is a phoney boloney martial-dancer-cise. Tybo is a cream colored, yellow rinded, cow’s milk cheese. One is good for the abs, the other is good on toast. Don’t get them mixed up.
Reluctantly leaving the world of danish cheeses, it is worth pointing out that synonyms are a minefield, too. Let’s look at pretty and handsome. Both of them mean attractive, but you’d better apply them to the appropriate gender. Calling someone a handsome woman is a very deliberate, unusual statement that most will interpret as either “not exactly ugly” or flat out “ugly, but in the nicest way possible.” Calling a boy pretty is a flat out insult. Cute works for both genders, for some reason, so stick to that if you can’t keep things straight. I’m still investigating the logic behind the fact that a lady’s man tends to be a man’s man, too, while a girly-girl and a manly woman couldn’t be more different.
Take it from a person who has made just about every linguistic faux pas possible, it pays to speak carefully. I once called a girl tomboy, not as a taunt or insult, but because I thought it was her nickname. (It turns out ladies don’t embrace derogatory nicknames nearly as readily as men do.) Some mistakes aren’t so bad. Milk chocolate and chocolate milk aren’t nearly the same, but at least they are in the same neighborhood. Others can be downright disastrous. I know I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy. So when you choose your words, choose wisely.