‘Swamped’ with options

A couple of weeks ago, the British defence secretary Michael Fallon claimed British towns are being “swamped” by immigrants. He made the claim in response to a question posed by an interviewer on Sky News. The Conservative Party, to which Michael Fallon belongs, was none too happy and quickly forced Mr Fallon to withdraw his comments. I am not sure if Mr Fallon himself regretted his comments and wishes he had chosen his words more carefully but what it does show is the power that words have and the importance of choosing an appropriate synonym.

For Mr Fallon had a number of alternative words he could have used instead of “swamped”. He could have opted for: bury; consume; encompass; engulf; envelop; flood; immerse; innundate; overrun; overwhelm; plunge; submerge; and swallow up, amongst others.

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary provides two defintions of ‘to swamp’:

to cover (something) with water;

to cause (someone or something) to have to deal with a very large amount of things or people at the same time.

However, there is much more to the verb ‘swamp’ than this rather insipid second definition provides. For when people think of a swamp, all kinds of literal and metaphorical images are conjured up. For many people, a swamp is a large expanse of pestilent boggy wetland, uninhabitable by human beings and crawling with alligators and swarms of mosquitos. This is hardly a positive image.

Which is why we need to be so careful about which synonym we choose. And which makes it all the more surprising that most online dictionaries, such Merriam-Webster, do not provide clarifications about the connotations which specific words carry.

So, in my opinion, it is the duty of teachers to try and make up for this shortfall. When teaching lexis, we need to clearly clarify the extent to which a lexical item carries neutral, positive or negative connotations, both literal and metaphorical.

This is not as easy as it might at first seem. Some lexical items are easier to define connotationally than others. For example, to clarify the difference between ‘a terrorist’ and ‘a freedom fighter’ is probably more straightforward than the difference between ‘swamp’ and ‘bury’. And this is because that amongst the many synonyms we could choose from, many carry subtle differences in nuance and metaphorical meaning, which are in turn tightly bound up with culture. We cannot assume, for instance, that a swamp in my culture necessarily conjures up the same images as a swamp in another culture.

The botton line, I think, is that just as Michael Fallon should have been more careful in is selection of words, we teachers also need to be careful about the words we are teaching students so that they do not fall into the same embarassing traps as my erstwhile Defence Minister.

Dominic Walters

I am CELTA and DELTA qualified and have an MA in Educational Psychology. I have been teaching English since 1991, working in Brazil, Republic of Ireland, Spain, Portugual, Egypt and the UK. I am a DELTA, ICELT, CELTA, FTBE assessor and tutor as well as a CELTA online course tutor. I am also an examiner for the Cambridge, IELTS, Trinity exams.

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