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Synonym list in cuneiform on a clay tablet, Neo-Assyrian period Library of Ashurbanipal synonym list tablet.jpg
Synonym list in cuneiform on a clay tablet, Neo-Assyrian period

A synonym is a word, morpheme, or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word, morpheme, or phrase in the same language. For example, the words begin, start, commence, and initiate are all synonyms of one another; they are synonymous. The standard test for synonymy is substitution: one form can be replaced by another in a sentence without changing its meaning. Words are considered synonymous in only one particular sense: for example, long and extended in the context long time or extended time are synonymous, but long cannot be used in the phrase extended family. Synonyms with exactly the same meaning share a seme or denotational sememe, whereas those with inexactly similar meanings share a broader denotational or connotational sememe and thus overlap within a semantic field. The former are sometimes called cognitive synonyms and the latter, near-synonyms, [2] plesionyms [3] or poecilonyms. [4]



Some lexicographers claim that no synonyms have exactly the same meaning (in all contexts or social levels of language) because etymology, orthography, phonic qualities, connotations, ambiguous meanings, usage, and so on make them unique. Different words that are similar in meaning usually differ for a reason: feline is more formal than cat; long and extended are only synonyms in one usage and not in others (for example, a long arm is not the same as an extended arm). Synonyms are also a source of euphemisms.

Metonymy can sometimes be a form of synonymy: the White House is used as a synonym of the administration in referring to the U.S. executive branch under a specific president. [5] Thus a metonym is a type of synonym, and the word metonym is a hyponym of the word synonym.[ citation needed ]

The analysis of synonymy, polysemy, hyponymy, and hypernymy is inherent to taxonomy and ontology in the information-science senses of those terms. [6] It has applications in pedagogy and machine learning, because they rely on word-sense disambiguation. [7]


The word is borrowed from Latin synōnymum, in turn borrowed from Ancient Greek synōnymon ( συνώνυμον ), composed of sýn ( σύν 'together, similar, alike') and -ōnym- (-ωνυμ-), a form of onoma ( ὄνομα 'name'). [8]

Sources of synonyms

Synonyms are often some from the different strata making up a language. For example, in English, Norman French superstratum words and Old English substratum words continue to coexist. [9] Thus, today we have synonyms like the Norman-derived people, liberty and archer, and the Saxon-derived folk, freedom and bowman. For more examples, see the list of Germanic and Latinate equivalents in English.

Loanwords are another rich source of synonyms, often from the language of the dominant culture of a region. Thus most European languages have borrowed from Latin and ancient Greek, especially for technical terms, but the native terms continue to be used in non-technical contexts. In East Asia, borrowings from Chinese in Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese often double native terms. In Islamic cultures, Arabic and Persian are large sources of synonymous borrowings.

For example, in Turkish, kara and siyah both mean 'black', the former being a native Turkish word, and the latter being a borrowing from Persian. In Ottoman Turkish, there were often three synonyms: water can be su (Turkish), âb (Persian), or (Arabic): "such a triad of synonyms exists in Ottoman for every meaning, without exception". As always with synonyms, there are nuances and shades of meaning or usage. [10]

In English, similarly, we often have Latin and Greek terms synonymous with Germanic ones: thought, notion (L), idea (Gk); ring, circle (L), cycle (Gk). English often uses the Germanic term only as a noun, but has Latin and Greek adjectives: hand, manual (L), chiral (Gk); heat, thermal (L), caloric (Gk). Sometimes the Germanic term has become rare, or restricted to special meanings: tide, time/temporal, chronic. [11] [12]

Many bound morphemes in English are borrowed from Latin and Greek and are synonyms for native words or morphemes: fish, pisci- (L), ichthy- (Gk).

Another source of synonyms is coinages, which may be motivated by linguistic purism. Thus the English word foreword was coined to replace the Romance preface. In Turkish, okul was coined to replace the Arabic-derived mektep and mederese, but those words continue to be used in some contexts. [13]

Uses of synonyms

Synonyms often express a nuance of meaning or are used in different registers of speech or writing.

Different technical fields may appropriate synonyms for specific technical meanings.

Some writers avoid repeating the same word in close proximity, and prefer to use synonyms: this is called elegant variation. Many modern style guides criticize this.


Synonyms can be any part of speech, as long as both words belong to the same part of speech. Examples:

Synonyms are defined with respect to certain senses of words: pupil as the aperture in the iris of the eye is not synonymous with student. Similarly, he expired means the same as he died, yet my passport has expired cannot be replaced by my passport has died.

A thesaurus or synonym dictionary lists similar or related words; these are often, but not always, synonyms. [14]

See also

Related Research Articles

In linguistics, a false friend is either of a pair of words in different languages that look or sound similar, but differ significantly in meaning. An example is the English embarrassed and the Spanish embarazada, the word parents and the Portuguese parentes and Italian parenti, or the word bribe, which means 'suborn' in English, but crumb in French.

Thesaurus Reference work that lists words grouped by similarity of meaning

A thesaurus or synonym dictionary is a reference work for finding synonyms and sometimes antonyms of words. They are often used by writers to help find the best word to express an idea: find the word, or words, by which [an] idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed

WordNet Computational lexicon of English

WordNet is a lexical database of semantic relations between words in more than 200 languages. WordNet links words into semantic relations including synonyms, hyponyms, and meronyms. The synonyms are grouped into synsets with short definitions and usage examples. WordNet can thus be seen as a combination and extension of a dictionary and thesaurus. While it is accessible to human users via a web browser, its primary use is in automatic text analysis and artificial intelligence applications. WordNet was first created in the English language and the English WordNet database and software tools have been released under a BSD style license and are freely available for download from that WordNet website.

In lexical semantics, opposites are words lying in an inherently incompatible binary relationship. For example, something that is long entails that it is not short. It is referred to as a 'binary' relationship because there are two members in a set of opposites. The relationship between opposites is known as opposition. A member of a pair of opposites can generally be determined by the question What is the opposite of  X ?

International scientific vocabulary (ISV) comprises scientific and specialized words whose language of origin may or may not be certain, but which are in current use in several modern languages. The name "international scientific vocabulary" was first used by Philip Gove in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (1961). As noted by Crystal, science is an especially productive field for new coinages.

Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. Someone who engages in this study is called a linguist. See also the Outline of linguistics, the List of phonetics topics, the List of linguists, and the List of cognitive science topics. Articles related to linguistics include:

Hyponymy and hypernymy Semantic relations involving the type-of property

In linguistics, hyponymy is a semantic relation between a hyponym denoting a subtype and a hypernym or hyperonym denoting a supertype. In other words, the semantic field of the hyponym is included within that of the hypernym. In simpler terms, a hyponym is in a type-of relationship with its hypernym. For example: pigeon, crow, eagle, and seagull are all hyponyms of bird, their hypernym; which itself is a hyponym of animal, its hypernym.

In linguistics, a calque or loan translation is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal word-for-word or root-for-root translation. When used as a verb, "to calque" means to borrow a word or phrase from another language while translating its components, so as to create a new lexeme in the target language. For instance, the English word "skyscraper" led to the French gratte-ciel, the Spanish rascacielos, the Portuguese rascaceus, the Italian grattacielo, and to similar calques in dozens of other languages. Another notable exemple is the Latin week names, which came to be associated by ancient Germanic speakers with their own gods following a practice known as interpretatio germanica: the Latin "Day of Mercury", Mercurii dies, was borrowed into Late Proto-Germanic as the "Day of Wōđanaz" (*Wodanesdag), which became Wōdnesdæg in Old English, then "Wednesday" in Modern English.

Lexical semantics, is a subfield of linguistic semantics. The units of analysis in lexical semantics are lexical units which include not only words but also sub-words or sub-units such as affixes and even compound words and phrases. Lexical units include the catalogue of words in a language, the lexicon. Lexical semantics looks at how the meaning of the lexical units correlates with the structure of the language or syntax. This is referred to as syntax-semantic interface.

A root is the core of a word that is irreducible into more meaningful elements. In morphology, a root is a morphologically simple unit which can be left bare or to which a prefix or a suffix can attach. The root word is the primary lexical unit of a word, and of a word family, which carries aspects of semantic content and cannot be reduced into smaller constituents. Content words in nearly all languages contain, and may consist only of, root morphemes. However, sometimes the term "root" is also used to describe the word without its inflectional endings, but with its lexical endings in place. For example, chatters has the inflectional root or lemma chatter, but the lexical root chat. Inflectional roots are often called stems, and a root in the stricter sense, a root morpheme, may be thought of as a monomorphemic stem.

The suffix -onym is a bound morpheme, that is attached to the end of a root word, thus forming a new compound word that designates a particular class of names. In linguistic terminology, compound words that are formed with suffix -onym are most commonly used as designations for various onomastic classes. Most onomastic terms that are formed with suffix -onym are classical compounds, whose word roots are taken from classical languages.

An auto-antonym or autantonym, also called a contronym, contranym or Janus word, is a word with multiple meanings (senses) of which one is the reverse of another. For example, the word cleave can mean "to cut apart" or "to bind together". This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy, antilogy or autantonymy. An enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic.

A sememe is a semantic language unit of meaning, analogous to a morpheme. The concept is relevant in structural semiotics.

In linguistics, a compound is a lexeme that consists of more than one stem. Compounding, composition or nominal composition is the process of word formation that creates compound lexemes. That is, in familiar terms, compounding occurs when two or more words or signs are joined to make a longer word or sign, often however written in separate parts in English but not most other languages, e.g. press conference.

The Greek language has contributed to the English vocabulary in five main ways:

In etymology, two or more words in the same language are called doublets or etymological twins or twinlings when they have different phonological forms but the same etymological root. Often, but not always, the words entered the language through different routes. Given that the kinship between words that have the same root and the same meaning is fairly obvious, the term is mostly used to characterize pairs of words that have diverged at least somewhat in meaning. For example, English pyre and fire are doublets with merely associated meanings despite both descending ultimately from the same Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *péh₂ur.

Semantic lexicon

A semantic lexicon is a digital dictionary of words labeled with semantic classes so associations can be drawn between words that have not previously been encountered. Semantic lexicons are built upon semantic networks, which represent the semantic relations between words. The difference between a semantic lexicon and a semantic network is that a semantic lexicon has definitions for each word, or a "gloss".

A collateral adjective is an adjective that is identified with a particular noun in meaning, but that is not derived from that noun. For example, the word bovine is considered the adjectival equivalent of the noun cow, but it is derived from a different word, which happens to be the Latin word for "cow". Similarly, lunar serves as an adjective to describe attributes of the Moon; moon comes from Old English mōna "moon" and lunar from Latin luna "moon". The adjective thermal and the noun heat have a similar semantic relationship. As in these examples, collateral adjectives in English very often derive from the Latin or Greek translations of the corresponding nouns. In some cases both the noun and the adjective are borrowed, but from different languages, such as the noun air and the adjective aerial. The term "collateral" refers to these two sides in the relationship.

English prefixes are affixes that are added before either simple roots or complex bases consisting of (a) a root and other affixes, (b) multiple roots, or (c) multiple roots and other affixes. Examples of these follow:

Automatic taxonomy construction (ATC) is the use of software programs to generate taxonomical classifications from a body of texts called a corpus. ATC is a branch of natural language processing, which in turn is a branch of artificial intelligence.


  1. K.4375
  2. Stanojević, Maja (2009), "Cognitive synonymy: a general overview" (PDF), Facta Universitatis, Linguistics and Literature Series, 7 (2): 193–200.
  3. DiMarco, Chrysanne, and Graeme Hirst. "Usage notes as the basis for a representation of near-synonymy for lexical choice." Proceedings of 9th annual conference of the University of Waterloo Centre for the New Oxford English Dictionary and Text Research. 1993.
  4. Grambs, David. The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. WW Norton & Company, 1997.
  5. "World Architecture Images- The White House". Retrieved 2019-12-09.
  6. Hirst, Graeme. "Ontology and the lexicon." Handbook on ontologies. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg, 2009. 269-292.
  7. Turney, Peter D. (2008). "A Uniform Approach to Analogies, Synonyms, Antonyms, and Associations". Proceedings of the 22Nd International Conference on Computational Linguistics - Volume 1. COLING '08. Stroudsburg, PA, USA: Association for Computational Linguistics: 905–912. arXiv: 0809.0124 . ISBN   978-1-905593-44-6.
  8. Oxford English Dictionary , 1st edition, 1919, s.v.
  9. Bradley, Henry (1922). The Making of English. Macmillan and Company, Limited.
  10. Ziya Gökalp, The Principles of Turkism, 1968, p. 78
  11. Stavros Macrakis and Angelos Tsiromokos's answers to "Are there any words in English which are synonyms but have separate ancient Greek and Latin origin and the Latin word is not etymologically derivative of the older ancient Greek?" on
  12. Carl Darling Buck, A Dictionary of Selected Synonyms in the Principal Indo-European Languages, 1949, reprinted as ISBN   0226079376
  13. Geoffrey Lewis, The Turkish Language Reform: A Catastrophic Success, 1999, ISBN   0198238568, p. 44, 70, 117
  14. "Synonym dictionary words and phrases". Retrieved 2018-04-27.