Synonyms – how to understand them

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Synonyms – definition

synonyms In a very general sense, synonyms are different words which have the same meaning.

Word Synonym
kingly royal
pavement sidewalk
youth youngster
strong powerful


redbtn Strictly speaking, such words are rarely [if ever] quite identical to each other.

redbtn There are bound to be semantic, stylistic, regional, or other differences between them.

redbtn It is often said that if two words do have exactly the same meaning, one of them is likely to disappear.

redbtn Moreover, two words might be synonymous in one statement, and different in another.

redbtn NB! Synonyms offer us variety in our expression.

redbtn Synonyms are usually referred to by linguists as ‘near synonyms’, because they argue that no two words mean exactly the same. If they did, one would probably disappear from use.

redbtn English is a language which has ‘borrowed’ from many varied sources during the course of its history. This has created a wide and heterogeneous lexicon. For example, terms which were originally French currently coexist with their Anglo-saxon equivalents:

French Anglo-Saxon
petite small
tour trip
chauffeur driver
aperitif drink
promenade front (as in sea-front)
escritoire desk

redbtn The French term usually carries a prestige value over that of the English equivalent, which is often seen as basic and even crass. This is because of the history of French dominance over the English as a result of the Norman Conquest.

redbtn During the period of French rule after 1066, a state of diglossia existed throughout the south of England. Diglossia means that two languages are used by one society, but applied to two discrete functions. French was used for matters of church and state, whereas English was used by the common people for personal and family discourse.

redbtn The legacy of this diglossia is that we have a multitude of synonyms or near-synonyms at our disposal.

redbtn However, it is usually preferable to state the same idea in a variety of styles, rather than to repeat one definitive term for one specific phenomenon.

redbtn In Shakespeare’s King Lear, the king confesses to being a ‘foolish fond old man’. The use of two near synonyms has a poetic and dramatic effect, as one adjective has the effect of intensifying the other.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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