Do Synonyms Exist?

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A synonym is supposed to be any word that means the same as another word. But I don’t think there is any such thing. I don’t believe that kind of synonym exists.

Okay, I need to qualify that assertion. Technically, a synonym is “a word or phrase that has a meaning the same as, or very close to, that of another word or phrase.” So if your definition of a synonym includes words with similar meanings, then yes, I believe in synonyms.

But when you consider the meaning of a word, you need to consider both its denotation and its connotation. The denotation is the primary, literal meaning of a word. The connotation is the suggested or implied meaning of a word. Connotations usually come from experience or associations. Seeing a word used repeatedly in certain contexts gives the word a different color than it gets in the dictionary.

Connotations may even have accidental origins. Simply because one word looks like another word or shares the same syllable, even if technically the two words aren’t related, we tend to associate them together. For me, amazement carries some of the connotation of magic, partly because of its second syllable. And the sound of a word unconsciously influences its connotation. The word disgust would be a weaker word without the coughing, gagging g, the hissing, sneering s, and the spitting t.

Because I believe strongly in connotations, I don’t believe in synonyms. Because every word has a unique connotation, no word has exactly the same meaning as another. For example, the Random House Unabridged Dictionary uses as examples of synonyms the words joyful, elated, glad. But each of those three words has a different connotation! To me, joyful connotes Christmas (“Joy to the World”), a deep sense of happiness. The word glad carries a connotation of satisfaction. Elated, from the Latin word elatus or “raised,” has the more extreme connotation of excitement.

Each of those three words would be used in different situations or contexts. For example, when a friend admits that he got to the county park quicker when he followed your directions rather than his, you might simply say, “I’m glad that you agree with me.” But if you said, “I’m elated that you agree with me,” it would imply greater sarcasm. And you would never say, “I’m joyful that you agree with me,” because you wouldn’t feel a “deep sense of happiness” over something so unimportant. And do you know what? If you check the dictionary, joy, elated, and glad all have slightly different denotations too.

As I said, you can only learn the connotation of words by reading (a lot) and through experience. But your writing becomes incalculably more effective when you use the right word, instead of picking any word that seems to be a synonym.

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12 thoughts on “Do Synonyms Exist?”

  1. Definitions of dictionaries notwithstanding, synonym as used
    by these very same dictionaries actually means a word or phrase
    with a similar meaning, not a word or phrase that has a meaning
    the same as or very close to that of another word or phrase.

    A word that is similar is not identical and similarly
    should not be used in the identical way.

  2. Although I completely see your point and mostly agree with it, this post just makes me want to search for 2 words that mean exactly the same thing – if I find one I’ll let you know.
    Great post (and site) by the way.

  3. Michael, I’ve heard it said that the English language has no true synonyms. When I reflect upon on it, and reading what you’ve said, I’m more convinced of this “fact”.

  4. See, I think that is the difference between people who really love words and those who don’t.

    My best friend and I revel in the perfect word. I remember a fight he had with his GF once, years back.

    Her “You said you are angry.”
    He “I did not say I was angry, i said I was perturbed.”
    Her “What’s the difference?”

    To he and I, and probably you, there is a WORLD of difference. To her, not so much.

  5. Two things.

    First, a synonym also has to take into account the context of usage. Where two words may not be that similar in definition, in specific usage they may come to be pretty similar.

    He cleaned the manure from the mare’s stall.
    He cleaned the muck from the mare’s stall.

    (Sorry for the scatalogical context – that was just the first that occurred to me, and any horse lover understands the everyday nature of the usage.) Muck and manure are quite different in where they are used, all the variations of what they may connote. In this instance, muck represents a specific instance where the meanings coincide, and the usage limits both to that same meaning.

    The other. Don’t laugh. HP presents a color thesaurus.

    Type in a color name, they show four similar (synonym) and four opposite (antonym) colors. They actually label the columns synonym and antonym. Maybe terminally cute, but I stumbled on an article about it just after reading this one.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article!

  6. I always assumed that on some level, all people feel that different words in their native language have different connotations, even if they don’t consider themselves lovers of words. However, the English language has more words than other languages, just as the Inuits in Alaska have more words for “snow,” so maybe English speakers have the luxury of more meanings.

    Since connotations are subjective, influenced by our own experiences and feelings, if anyone claims to find two words with identical meanings, I will promptly explain why, to me, they mean different things. So there! (grin)

  7. Also Wikipedia states that,

    “…there is no such thing as a true synonym.”

    “Those who work with language know that there is no such thing as a true synonym. Even though the meanings of two words may be the same – or nearly so – there are three characteristics of words that almost never coincide: frequency, distribution and connotation.”

  8. I have found one, and i dont know why it exists.
    Peculation; definition is “embezzlement”
    in other words.
    peculation means embezzle embezzlement etc..
    so thus embezzlement and peculation are of identical meanings.
    Which makes no sense to me.

  9. I would agree with the “…there is no such thing as a true synonym.” theory for the most part.

    In the example above, embezzle is an Anglo-Norman word, while peculate is Latin. (appropriate, since many English synonyms evolved from parallel use of words between the two languages in medieval times)

    Consider the sentence: “The employee’s peculation might never have been discovered had he not purchased a new car.”
    Which form of embezzle would sound the best? “The employee’s embezzling…”? “The employee’s embezzlement…”?
    To me, “The employee’s embezzling activities…” sounds better, so there may be times when peculation would be preferred.

    The example I found is “innocuous” vs. “innoxious” – the latter not even recognized as a word by most spell checkers!
    What example could be found where one is preferred over the other? (or to just use “harmless”, besides formality)

    On a side note; similar to the confusion with “inflammable”, (and the rare “non-inflammable”) most people would probably not want to drink an “innoxious” liquid.

  10. We seem to have many ways of expressing the concept of, “big.” I am not even going to attempt a list. Apparently, there aren’t enough, as new ones seem to crop up. “Ginormous,” is a new one that, I suppose, solved a huge connotation problem.

    Now in Spanish, is, “grande,” the only word they have for, “big?”

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