Yes, That’s Dumb—A Lexicographic Footnote

(Comments to a blog post this morning on Gizmodo.)

Type in the word “dumb” to Wolfram|Alpha and you’ll get all sorts of interesting information. Like that “dumb” was first recorded in use in 1323—686 years ago.


One thing Wolfram|Alpha gives is synonyms for dumb. An example is “dim”.

But what happens if one looks at the synonyms of synonyms of “dumb”?

Each of the 8 direct synonyms of “dumb” has many more synonyms.

And one can build up a network of all these synonyms of synonyms.

Of course, the network is quite approximate, because one is looking at the synonyms for synonyms, just as words—ignoring the sense of each word.

So, “dim” is a synonym of “dumb”. But what are synonyms of “dim“?

"synonyms of dim"

Two of them are “black” and “bleak”. Perfectly reasonable synonyms for “dim” on its own. (See the first definition for dim.)


But now two sensible synonyms lead to something dumb. We get from “dumb” to “dim”, and from “dim” to “black”.

There are 8 first-level synonyms for “dumb”. There are 66 second-level synonyms (of which “black” is one). (A tree would show 102 second-level synonyms, but some are not distinct.) At level three, there are 423
synonyms. At level four, 1851. And so on. (For those who are interested, Mathematica’s WordData quickly tells us that the sequence continues: 6731, 14800, 21054, 24140, 25459, 26003, 26211, 26292, 26313, 26326, 26330, 26330, 26330—it finally hits the “edge” of the set of connected words.)

sequence of connected words

By the time one’s even at level three, one’s at words as different as “well-off” and “drapery”.

This is a kind of “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” for words. It’s somewhat interesting from a linguistic point of view. But it certainly shouldn’t be used to tell one a substitute word to use in an essay. Imagine substituting “drapery” for “dim”. Or “black” for “dumb”.

The pod labeled “Synonym network” is called that because it gives the network of successive sense-independent word synonyms. It’s always a challenge to come up with short titles for pods that convey all the meaning of their contents.

And in this case one might conclude from “Synonym network” that Wolfram|Alpha thinks “black” is a real synonym for “dumb”. It doesn’t.

Arguably, we could change the title “Synonym network”. At some point during testing it was called “Word association network”. But people didn’t understand at all what that was.

Any suggestions?

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