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Differences between synonyms

'Words,' Dr. Johnson once remarked, 'are seldom exactly synonymous.' Macaulay has expressed the same idea in terms which will commend themselves to the modern linguist: 'Change the structure of the sentence; substitute one synonym for another; and the whole effect is destroyed.' In contemporary linguistics it has become almost axiomatic that complete synonymy does not exist. In the words of Bloomfield, 'each linguistic form has a constant and specific meaning. If the forms are phonemically different, we suppose that their meanings are also different... We suppose, in short, that there are no actual synonyms.' Long before Bloomfield, Breal had spoken of a 'law of distribution' in language, according to which 'words which should be synonymous, and which were so in the past, have acquired different meanings and are no longer interchangeable.'

While there is of course a great deal of truth in these statements, it would be wrong to deny the possibility of complete synonymy. Paradoxically enough, one encounters it where one would least expect it: in technical nomenclatures. The fact that scientific terms are precisely delimited and emotionally neutral enables us to find out quite definitely whether any two of them are completely interchangeable, and absolute synonymy is by no means infrequent. Recent studies on the formation of industrial terminologies have shown that several synonyms will some­times arise around a new invention, until they are eventually sorted out. Such synonymy may even persist for an indefinite period. [...] In phonetics, consonants like s and z are known both as spirants and as fricatives, and the same writer may employ both terms synonymously. [...] In ordinary language, one can rarely be so positive about identity of meaning, since the matter is complicated by vagueness, ambiguity, emotive overtones and evocative effects; but even there one can occasionally find words which are for all intents and purposes interchangeable; it has been suggested, for example, that almost and nearly are such 'integral' synonyms.

Nevertheless, it is perfectly true that absolute synonymy runs counter to our whole way of looking at language. When we see different words we instinctively assume that there must also be some difference in meaning, and in the vast majority of cases there is in fact a distinction even though it may be difficult to formulate. Very few words are completely synonymous in the sense of being interchangeable in any context without the slightest alteration in objective meaning, feeling-tone or evocative value. Professor W.E. Collinson has made an interesting attempt at tabulating the most typical differences between synonyms. He distinguishes between nine possibilities:

(1) One term is more general than another: refuse reject.

(2) One term is more intense than another: repudiate refuse.

(3) One term is more emotive than another: reject decline.

(4) One term may imply moral approbation or censure where another is neutral: thrifty economical.

(5) One term is more professional than another: decease death.

(6) One term is more literary than another: passing death.

(7) One term is more colloquial than another: turn downrefuse.

(8) One term is more local or dialectal than another: (Scots) flesher butcher.

(9) One of the synonyms belongs to child-talk: daddy father.

Some of the above categories include several subdivisions. Under (6), literary terms may be divided into poetic, archaic arid others; under (7), colloquial language comprises several varieties such as familiar, slangy and vulgar speech.

If one looks more closely at this series one notices that the nine categories fall into several distinct groups. Numbers (8) and (9) stand apart from the rest since dialect and child-talk are really outside, or at best on the fringes of, Standard English. Number (1) refers to objective dif­ferences between synonyms, number (2) combines objective and emotive factors, (3) and (4) are emotive, whereas (5), (6) and (7) involve evocative effects which, as we already know, are a special type of emotive meaning.

The best method for the delimitation of synonyms is the substitution test recommended by Macaulay. This, it will be remembered, is one of the fundamental procedures of modern linguistics, and in the case of synonyms it reveals at once whether, and how far, they are interchangeable. If the difference is predominantly objective, one will often find a certain overlap in meaning: the terms involved may be interchanged in some contexts but not in others. Thus, broad and wide are synonymous in some of their uses: the 'broadest sense' of a word is the same thing as its 'widest sense', etc. In other contexts, only one of the two terms can be used: we say 'five foot wide', not broad; a 'broad accent', not — a wide one, etc. If, on the other hand, the difference between synonyms is mainly emotive or stylistic, there may be no overlap at all: however close in objective meaning, they belong to totally different registers or levels of style and cannot normally be interchanged. It is dif­ficult to imagine any context — except a deliberately comical or ironical one — where stingy could replace avaricious or where pop off could be substituted for pass away.

One can also distinguish between synonyms by finding their opposites (antonyms). Thus, the verb decline is more or less synonymous with reject when it means the opposite of accept, but not when it is opposed to rise. Deep will overlap with profound in 'deep sympathy', where its opposite would be superficial, but not in 'deep water', where its antonym is shallow.

Yet another way of differentiating between synonyms is to arrange them into a series where their distinctive meanings and overtones will stand out by contrast, as for instance the various adjectives denoting swiftness: quick, swift, fast, nimble, fleet, rapid, speedy.

There is an amusing demonstration of differences between synonyms in As You Like It, Act V, scene 1, where Touchstone, the court jester, exercises his professional wit at the expense of an uneducated young peasant:

"Therefore, you clown, abandon — which is in the vulgar leave — the society — which in the boorish is company — of this female — which in the common is woman — which together is: abandon the society of this female; or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit, I kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death."

Synonymic Patterns

The synonymic resources of a language tend to form certain characteristic and fairly consistent patterns. In English, for instance, synonyms are organized according to two basic principles, one of them involving a double, the other a triple scale.

The double scale — Saxon versus Latin, as it is usually called — is too well known to require detailed comment. There are in English countless pairs of synonyms where a native term is opposed to one borrowed from French, Latin or Greek. In most cases the native word is more spontaneous, more informal and unpretentious, whereas the foreign one often has a learned, abstract or even abstruse air. There may also be emotive differences: the 'Saxon' term is apt to be warmer and homelier than its foreign counterpart. Phonetically too, the latter will sometimes have an alien, unassimilated appearance; it will also tend to be longer than the native word which has been subjected to the erosive effect of sound-change. There are many exceptions to this pattern; yet it recurs so persistently that it is obviously fundamental to the structure of the language. It may be noted that the term 'native' need not be taken in a narrowly etymological sense: it may include words of foreign origin which have become thoroughly anglicized in form as well as in meaning, such as for instance the adjective popish as opposed to the learned papal.

It will be sufficient to quote a few examples of this synonymic pattern. All major parts of speech are involved in the process:


bodily — corporeal

brotherly — fraternal


answer — reply

buy — purchase


fiddle — violin

friendship — amity

The ease with which examples can be multiplied shows how all-pervasive this pattern is in English. [...] It is symptomatic of our instinctive reactions that, when in danger, we call for help, not aid, and that we speak of self-help, not mutual aid.

In a few cases, these synonymic values are reversed and the native term is rarer or more literary than the foreign:

dale — valley

deed — action

The explanation of the anomaly will no doubt lie in the history of the two words involved. In the case of the first pair, for example, valley (from French vallee) is the everyday word, and dale (from Old English dcel, cognate with German Tal) has only lately been introduced into the standard language from the dialects of the hilly northern counties.

Side by side with this main pattern there exists in English a subsidiary one based on a triple scale of synonyms: native, French, and Latin or Greek:

begin (start) — commence — initiate

end — finish — conclude

In most of these combinations, the native synonym is the simplest and most ordinary of the three terms, the Latin or Greek one is learned, abstract, with an air of cold and impersonal precision, whereas the French one stands between the two extremes.

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