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"Eye of the beholder" and "Eye of the viewer" mean the same thing because beholder and viewer are synonyms. Why can't they both be used?

What about "slim chance" vs "slim possibility"? They both seem to be ok. Does that mean any synonym would be ok?

Why is one pair ok with the swap and the other is not? I'm more interested in the understanding the reasons for the difference then the particular examples.

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    Because the definition of a synonym is a word that means almost the same as the other word. No two words carry exactly the same meaning, connotation, and "musical" qualities. – Hot Licks Sep 12 '15 at 12:28
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    If you believe in synonyms then you will face this difficulty. I don't because I feel that all words are different and have unique meanings and pictures associated with them. Viewer and beholder are very different just as possibility and chance are different. If you change the word you change the meaning. The word "dearly" according to the thesaurus can also mean "tenderly" but you can't switch the words in the sentence "I love you dearly / tenderly." How come Elvis didn't sing "Love me dearly?" – michael_timofeev Sep 12 '15 at 12:36
  • @HotLicks aren't there some synonyms that mean exactly the same thing that can't always be substituted? Are you claiming that a words meaning ecompasses every posible use? – candied_orange Sep 12 '15 at 14:41
  • Even if a word is identical in meaning and nuance to another, it likely doesn't rhyme with the same words. – Hot Licks Sep 13 '15 at 1:03
  • @HotLicks well yes exactly, Rhymes do go beyond meaning but so do idioms, expressions, or set phrases. A rhyme resonates with a sound. An idiom resonates with a habit. Nether is about meaning. I was hoping for an answer that explained the rules of idioms, expressions, and set phrases and their use. Particularly, how to avoid spoiling them unawares. – candied_orange Sep 13 '15 at 3:15
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Because they are set phrases with specific etymological characteristics which contributed to their development through the years. A different wording would, in many cases, be easily understood, but would also be easily recognised as a variant of a more popular saying. In the case of beauty is in the eye of the beholder for instance:

  • This saying first appeared in the 3rd century BC in Greek. It didn't appear in its current form in print until the 19th century, but in the meantime there were various written forms that expressed much the same thought. In 1588, the English dramatist John Lyly, in his Euphues and his England, wrote:

    • "...as neere is Fancie to Beautie, as the pricke to the Rose, as the stalke to the rynde, as the earth to the roote."
  • Shakespeare expressed a similar sentiment in Love's Labours Lost, 1588:

    • Good Lord Boyet, my beauty, though but mean, Needs not the painted flourish of your praise: Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye, Not utter'd by base sale of chapmen's tongues

But:

  • The person who is widely credited with coining the saying in its current form is Margaret Wolfe Hungerford (née Hamilton), who wrote many books, often under the pseudonym of 'The Duchess'. In Molly Bawn, 1878, there's the line "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder", which is the earliest citation that I can find in print.

(The Phrase Finder)

  • In the case of slim chance, the origin is less clear but its usage is clearly more widespread than slim possibility as shown here,
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Beholder is becoming archaic, I don't think I ever hear it outside the standard beauty is in the eye of the beholder. So why not substitute it with a more commonly understood word? There is no law that prevents a writer or speaker from doing so.

What is deemed beautiful depends on the individual/observer/viewer:

Beauty is in the eye of the individual
Beauty is in the eye of the observer
Beauty is in the eye of the viewer

All three work, although I usually associate a viewer as someone passive, like a television viewer, whereas the role of an observer is more dynamic, someone who watches or notices something.

However, do the above sound less poetic, less literary, less erudite than the original? Would a reader immediately feel the urge to silently ‘correct’ the author?

There's something though about beholder which encapsulates the idea of a person who has a vision before his eyes, who beholds an image or a person as something extraordinary. Oxford Dictionaries define behold as

See or observe (someone or something, especially of remarkable or impressive nature):

  • the botanical gardens were a wonder to behold
  • Hardly had I seated myself when my eyes beheld a child staring accusingly at me.

Google Ngram shows that in the eye of the beholder (blue) has overtaken in the eye of the observer (red) since the 1960s. Of course the vast majority of instances include beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I wanted to see if the prepositional phrase in the eye was used with a different noun, and it definitely was in the 19th century.

enter image description here

Comparing the following nouns: viewer (blue); spectator (red); individual (green), and perceiver (yellow) produces the following chart.

enter image description here

Google produces only 7 instances for beauty is in the eye of the perceiver; 8 for … eye of the spectator; 19 examples with individual; 47 hits for "beauty is in the eye of the viewer", and 48 with beauty is ... observer.

  • I think there is not much point in asking if a set phrase, a proverb or saying should be used with a variant or more contemporary phrasing. A "set phrase" is self-explanatory an its usage and meaning are usually "crystallised" through the years, through the centuries often defying the semantic changes or usages of their single words. – user66974 Sep 12 '15 at 12:08
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    But all three don't work the same. They do because you already know the meaning of the original set phrase so you are able to make a connection and say "Yeah, that kinda fits." An individual is much different than a beholder. A viewer and observer are different. People think they're all the same now because no one bothers to really learn words. Why not just use gape, gawk, peer, peep, stare, gaze, or any other word for "look" which kinda means behold? "Beauty is in the eye of the gazer." – michael_timofeev Sep 12 '15 at 13:10
  • @michael_timofeev I did suggest that words such as observer, viewer*, and spectator etc. were less poetic. I also gave precise figures with the variants. No, they are not the same, but did I say they were? Your suggestions gaper, peeper and gawker mean something quite different altogether, above all they have negative connotations. I gave the OP the tools to make his own valuation. – Mari-Lou A Sep 12 '15 at 16:27
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    Did you check on your Google hits the sources of "beauty is in the eye of the viewer?" I did and found many of them were from non native speakers. Same with "individual." So, a source from the Phillipines or Italy that uses "beauty is in the eye of the individual," written by a non native speaker can be used? – michael_timofeev Sep 12 '15 at 16:52
  • I provided the link, and I gave precise figures. Besides what's wrong with non native speakers creating their own unique phrases? Do you think that every expression in the English language was coined by an Englishman or Englishwoman? Ever heard the very Italian expression: La dolce vita? :) The English say "The good life", and that's fine. Each expression offers and adds to the language something unique. – Mari-Lou A Sep 12 '15 at 16:55

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