Happy female

Vivacious in the Corpus

It’s often said that English has a very rich vocabulary, with many synonyms and words to express similar ideas. Yet it is also often said that there are no ‘true synonyms’. Every word listed in the same thesaurus entry, for example, will be distinguished from all the others by some difference – however small – in meaning or use. Corpus lexicography is a tool for drawing out distinctions between ‘near synonyms’. By examining typical collocates we can establish how the profile for one word differs from another. We then show the results of this analysis in the dictionary entry.

The word vivacious is listed in a typical thesaurus entry alongside lively, animated, sprightly, spirited, and so on. Here are the definitions from a recent dictionary for these words:

lively: full of high spirits and animation
animated: full of vitality; lively and active
sprightly: displaying animation, vigour, or liveliness
spirited: spirited or lively

What is noticeable is how similar the definitions are to each other. They do not show how the words differ.

So what is it about vivacious that makes it different from the others? Vivacious occurs 680 times in the Oxford English Corpus. It occurs across all varieties of English and is well represented in the ‘news’ and ‘fiction’ components of the corpus. A profile of the collocates reveals what it is about this word that distinguishes it:

word sketch for 'vivacious'

Typically, only certain types of noun are modified by the adjective vivacious. It seems that women and especially young women are considered vivacious; men and boys are not (nor animals, apparently). Furthermore, the use of the word vivacious conveys something more generally about a woman’s attractiveness, hence the frequent collocation with other adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘young’, and ‘blonde’. The brief dictionary entry tries to encapsulate some of the detail of this picture:

vivacious adj. (especially of a woman) attractively lively and animated.

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