A Toga Is Not a Tunic

Although most words have close synonyms, “words that mean about the same thing,” some do not.

Close synonyms permit a writer to avoid repeating a word.

For example, in a story about “little Suzy, aged four,” Suzy’s name can be varied with words like she, child, toddler, and four-year-old.

Some words, on the other hand, are so specific that synonyms are not an option. Toga is such a word. A feature in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (8-8-2016) illustrates the difficulty of trying to avoid repeating an unusual word, especially when the word is being used figuratively

1916 headline using the word
Headline in a 1916 issue of the Arkansas Gazette.

Researching the archives of the Arkansas Gazette (1819-1991), Celia Storey discovered that earlier journalists used the word toga as shorthand for “the office of US senator.” She cites a 1916 headline: “Hays Intimates He May Seek Toga” (Arkansas Gazette, 8-8-1916)

In the context, ex-governor George Hays is considering running for US Senate in the upcoming election of 1918.

Good writing practice aims to avoid using the same word in the same paragraph. Storey tries to avoid repeating toga in the following paragraph by replacing it with other words (Italics mine):

It’s not accurate to say those pages [of the old newspaper] were once upon a time cluttered with togas. I spotted only about 100 instances of Senate-related tunics from the 1880s to the late 1930s. Not a plethora, but enough to suggest that Arkansans used to understand the garment as a metaphor for Senate service.

Neither choice, tunic nor garment, is an effective synonym for toga in this context.

Literally, a toga is a garment and the substitution of garment probably wouldn’t bother most readers, who would mentally accept the idea that garment is being used as an alternative for toga.

The word tunic in place of toga, however, has the potential to yank the reader out of the story.

Tunic does not work as a synonym for toga for two reasons:

  1. A tunic is very different from a toga.
  2. The word tunic cannot be used figuratively to represent senatorial office.

The toga could be worn only by Roman citizens. The senatorial toga was bordered with a distinctive purple stripe.

Here a slave is helping a Roman citizen don a toga over a tunic. The slave is also wearing a tunic.

A tunic, on the other hand, could be worn by anybody, including women, foreigners, and slaves.

Togas are extremely heavy and limiting of movement. The wearer of a toga must walk slowly and deliberately. Tunics are lightweight and allow freedom of movement. Far from suggesting the dignity and authority of a Roman senator, a tunic, if it were given a figurative meaning, would represent the masses.

Sometimes the only solution for a writer is to repeat the word or figure out how to rewrite the paragraph without repeating it.