In the English language, total synonymy is extremely rare, as two words would have to be completely interchangeable in any context to qualify. This criterion has consequently led to it being “commonly asserted that absolute, perfect, or full synonyms do not exist” (Divjak 2010:3). However, there are clearly examples where terms significantly overlap in semantic space, and this expansive set of near-synonyms includes the nouns ‘wage’ and ‘salary’. This study explored whether the two words are used differently in texts, despite having extremely similar dictionary definitions. According to ‘Cambridge Dictionaries Online’, both ‘wage’ and ‘salary’ involve a “fixed amount of money” paid to an employee for their services, and they are cited as synonyms on the website ‘Thesaurus.com’. However, the two are not completely substitutable in discourse, and my investigation will show that the usage of each item is dependent on external factors, such as the type of job and the length of time being discussed.
I analysed ‘wage’ and ‘salary’ using three categories: their respective histories, patterns of use, and specific use in a text. For the first section, I used various sources, including websites ‘Etymonline.com’ and ‘Oxford English Dictionary Online’. I then explored individual aspects of the etymologies given, using other resources in a narrower search.
Secondly, I used the corpus query system ‘Sketch Engine’ and its corpus ‘enTenTen12’ to analyse patterns of use. ‘EnTenTen12’s vast quantity of words (11,191,860,036) improved my investigation’s validity. I used Sinclair’s proposed method (1999) of analysing concordance lines (“list[s] of occurrences… of a word or phrase in a corpus” – Gavioli 2005:11) thirty at a time for patterns (looking at 200 overall), before using the ‘collocation’ tool, referring to “the occurrence of two or more words within a short space of each other in a text” (Sinclair 1991a:170). I sorted the data by T-score, which is “a measure of certainty of collocation” (Hunston 2002:73), as it incorporates corpus size into its ratings – further increasing validity.
Both words entered the language in the Middle English period, where the Norman invasion introduced Anglo-French into the country, but the etymological similarities virtually end there.
‘Wage’ entered English in the 14th century, widely denoting “a salary paid to a provider of service” (Etymonline.com), regardless of the work’s length or nature. This contrasts with modern usage, with ‘wage’ mainly reserved for an “amount paid periodically” (Oxford English Dictionary Online).
Norman rule saw Anglo-French displace Old English as the dominant variety, and prompted the arrival of many “textual imports from the continent into England” (Wogan-Browne 2009:1). ‘Wage’ was one such borrowing - a northern variant of Old French ‘gauge’ meaning “a pledge or surety” (Wedgwood 1872:712). ‘Gauge’ could also refer to a “pledge to meet in battle”...