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I have found so many synonymes for the verb "ridicule". If I translated them to my mother tongue (german), I would translate all of them with the same words (verspotten / verhöhnen). I want to understand the nuances in their meaning though, because I don't think they all mean exactly the same. When I look them up in a dictionary, the definitions there are often cyclic, referring to each other. E.g.:

"to deride - Express contempt for; ridicule."

Therefore, the dictionary is of no big help (unless the words really mean exactly the same and there is no small semantic difference).

Can someone explain to me these nuances?

Here are the synonymes:

  • to ridicule
  • to deride
  • to jibe
  • to jeer
  • to mock
  • to taunt
  • to scoff
  • to sneer
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Although the words you have listed are almost synonymous, each has nuances and conveys a slightly different (though equally unpleasant!) mental image of the action described by the word.

For example, in my mind (as a native English speaker), the words convey the following connotations (which of course will be subjective):

  • to ridicule

    For me, a stronger term of dismissive language than any of the below, this could convey the sense of publicly embarrassing someone in front of others.

  • to deride

    In my opinion, this would describe a belittling remark, for example, humour at another's expense.

  • to jibe

    Similar to mock, but a single, almost joking, remark which could perhaps be construed as being more playful than hurtful.

  • to jeer

    Derision through loud contemptuous remarks; for me this always conjures an image of a group of people making loud jokes at another's expense. Think cheer, but offensive.

  • to mock

    For me this conveys the act of simply poking fun at someone with barbed remarks.

  • to taunt

    More akin to goading or provoking through insulting words or actions.

  • to scoff

    To me, this conveys a form of arrogance & haughtiness.

  • to sneer

    Derision with an accompanying evil smirk or snigger of laughter.

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This is a difficult question to answer. For example, Google suggests "to mock" as the translation of verspotten, but with these possible synonyms:

spotten, verhöhnen, höhnen, nachahmen, spötteln, trotzen, vereiteln

The best way to explain the differences between these would be to put each into some kind of unique context, in German. It's the same in English

The young schoolchildren ridiculed/mocked their classmate for wearing dirty, ragged clothing to school.

The seasoned boxer relentlessly taunted his opponent, trying to make him angry so he would strike unwisely, and leave himself open for a counter.

The French nobleman sneered/scoffed at the gathered rabble, secure in his own superiority, but their leader laughed, saying no amount of condescension would save him from his appointment with Madame la Guillotine.

And so on. Of course these aren't the only possibly uses of each of these, but if you check the dictionary you can find many more examples. A complete explanation, if possible, would be a lot of work to write out.

  • Thank you, however I think I'm none the wiser. I already check example sentences on the oxford dictionary, but the problem I have with these examples, is that I never know whether this is the only way to use the word or whether it's just this very example that is written this way. To stay with your examples: Could the boxer also have mocked or scoffed at the opponent or would this sound wrong to a native speaker? Could the schoolchildren have sneered at the classmate? If I saw a movie, what would these actions look like? Would sneering look different to taunting or mocking, e.g.? – gexicide Nov 21 '18 at 23:24
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    @gexicide There's no other way to explain how to use these words than to see them used in context. This means you have to read English extensively, and try to repeat what you hear. Don't worry as much about improving your speaking vocabulary -- increase your reading comprehension and your vocabulary will naturally increase as well. In that way it's really no different from becoming more proficient in German. – Andrew Nov 22 '18 at 2:39
  • @gexicide As I said, I can't possibly write up every possible meaning or usage of each of these. That would take far too long. Focus on a couple of these, and let the rest come as you see them in use -- for example, the boxer might have mocked or scoffed at his opponent, but that wouldn't be the same as taunted. Taunt means to ridicule someone to provoke a response. In the case of the boxer, this is likely with physical gesture, or by leaving a deliberately weak defense to insinuate his opponent is incompetent. – Andrew Nov 22 '18 at 2:41

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