There is no such thing as a true synonym in English. Discuss!

by Kate Woodford​
synonym
In the Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary the word ‘synonym’ is defined as ‘a word or phrase that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word or phrase in the same language’. As you might expect, definitions for this word are broadly similar in other dictionaries and yet the italicized phrase ‘or nearly the same’ is often absent. This seems to me an omission. Many words in English have the same basic or overall meaning and yet are significantly different for one or more reasons. Let’s look at the word ‘comprehend’ for example. Essentially, it means ‘to understand something’. And yet we don’t usually say that we comprehend an area of mathematics. We are more likely to say something like this

No one in the government seems to comprehend the scale of the problem.

Or this:

They have failed to comprehend the seriousness of the threat.

It seems that we comprehend serious, difficult things – and the things that we comprehend are likely to be tricky situations rather than tricky subjects. (And perhaps not surprisingly, since the situations are difficult, we often fail to comprehend them.) To comprehend something, then, is to understand it, but this is not the whole story. The two verbs are not true synonyms.

In a previous post (Body shapes), I wrote about the various adjectives that we use to describe our figures. There is a wealth of adjectives to describe people who are thin, having little fat on their body, but most have an additional meaning. For example, ‘skinny’ and ‘scrawny’ mean ‘too thin’ or ‘unattractively thin’, ‘lean’ means ‘thin and strong’ and the adjectives ‘slim’ and ‘slender’ are used to mean ‘attractively or gracefully thin’. Few of these words – if any – have precisely the same meaning.

Of course, not all differences between ‘synonyms’ are found in the meaning of the word. One significant difference may be found in the word’s register (= style of language, for example formal or informal). To ‘purchase’ something is to buy it, but while ‘buy’ is used in normal, everyday English, ‘purchase’ is a formal word, such as you might see in a contract or a sign: Tickets must be purchased two weeks in advance. Similarly, the adjectives ‘excellent’ and ‘awesome’, in the sense of ‘extremely good’, may be synonyms in respect of their meaning. However, ‘awesome’ is very definitely informal while ‘excellent’ is not.

A third way in which apparent synonyms may differ is in their connotations, by which we mean the feelings or ideas that the words suggest which are not part of their actual meaning. For example, ‘woman’ and ‘lady’ both essentially mean ‘an adult female’, but the word ‘lady’ additionally suggests qualities that have traditionally been associated with women, such as politeness and self-control. These connotations are entirely absent from the word ‘woman’.

22 thoughts on “There is no such thing as a true synonym in English. Discuss!

  1. Tatiana Balandina

    I agree with all the ideas of the article, When we say that two or three words have “nearly the same meaning” we should bear in mind that there are some difference between them. It is clearly seen when our students look up words in the dictionaries and find a number of synonyms. Very often the result is unadequate: the phrase becomes either absurd or comic. We face the same problem when teaching Russian to the foreigners. Thank you for the article. It is very useful.

  2. Oh yes there are differences as well as similarities in using synonyms. In fact it makes a language richer and more expressive; however, there is little need in borrowing so many other words in order to to explain the same concepts.

    Cheto

  3. Pingback: I appreciate that this is hard for you. (Other ways of saying ‘understand’) | About Words - Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog

  4. I agree with every one of the thoughts of the article, When we say that a few words have “about the same meaning” we ought to hold up under as a main priority that there are some difference between them. It is obviously seen when our students look up words in the dictionaries and locate various equivalent words. Regularly the result is unadequate: the phrase becomes either ludicrous or comic. Much obliged to you for the article. It is very helpful.

  5. ELS

    Like your articles, clear and easy to understand! By the way, what about lanky? does it mean slender or it has different connotations? Thanks!

    1. Kate Woodford

      Thank you – that’s very encouraging! A good question! ‘Lanky’ means tall and thin but it also suggests ungraceful, so is not quite synonymous with ‘slender’ which has connotations of attractiveness and gracefulness. Also, unlike ‘slender’ it’s informal. I hope that helps!

  6. Pingback: There is no such thing as a true synonym in English. Discuss! | About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog | Greaty thinks……………..

  7. Goodness yes there are contrasts and also similitudes in utilizing synonyms. Indeed it makes a language richer and more expressive; in any case, there is little need in obtaining such a large number of different words so as to clarify similar concepts.

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