Synonym - Definition and Examples

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Man surrounded by books with look of discovery on his face
Use a thesaurus to find synonyms.


Viorika / Getty Images 

A synonym is a word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word in certain contexts. Adjective: synonymous. Contrast with antonym.

Synonymy is the sense relation that exists between words with closely related meanings.

In the preface to A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson wrote, "Words are seldom exactly synonymous; names, therefore, have often many ideas, but few ideas have many names."

A synonym for the term synonym is poecilonym.

Etymology: From the Greek, "same name"

Examples and Observations

"The search for synonyms is a well-established classroom exercise, but it is as well to remember that lexemes rarely (if ever) have exactly the same meaning. There are usually stylistic, regional, emotional, or other differences to consider . . .. Two lexemes might be synonymous in one sentence but different in another: range and selection are synonyms in What a nice - of furnishings, but not in There's the mountain -."
(David Crystal, How Language Works. Overlook, 2006)

"Good, excellent, superior, above par, nice, fine, choice, rare, priceless, unparagoned, unparalleled, superfine, superexcellent, of the first water, crack, prime, tip-top, gilt-edged, first-class, capital, cardinal, couleur de rose, peerless, matchless, inestimable, precious as the apple of the eye, satisfactory, fair, fresh, unspoiled, sound.

GKN: over 80 companies making steel and steel products."
(Advertising campaign for Guest, Keen, & Nettlefolds, Ltd., 1961)

"I spoke in synonyms getting things across:
boast, swagger, bluster, bombast, brag."
(Matt Simpson, "Days of TEFL." Getting There. Liverpool University Press, 2001)

"What words do people use for a strip of grass between the sidewalk (in Britain: pavement) and the street?

The research team [for the Dictionary of American Regional English] found boulevard, devil strip, grass plot, neutral ground, parking strip, parkway, terrace, tree bank, tree belt, tree lawn and many more."
(David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words. St. Martin's Press, 2012)

Near Synonyms

"When we say that what Americans call a truck the British call a lorry, we are saying that truck and lorry are synonyms. Near-synonyms are exploited in dictionary definitions (e.g. fray 'to wear' [as an edge of cloth]' in Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary). . . . Usually synonyms differ in that they are used in different dialects, in different styles, in different combinations or in that the meanings of two words may overlap, but each has its own area as well. For instance, freedom and liberty are commonly treated as synonyms (and either could be used of someone who had just come out of captivity in the sentence She is enjoying her freedom/liberty), but they appear in different combinations, because although we have freedom of expression and academic freedom there is no generally corresponding liberty of expression or academic liberty."​
(Laurie Bauer, Vocabulary. Routledge, 1998)

Synonyms in Different Registers

"The consequence of extensive borrowing from French, Latin, and Greek throughout the history of English is the creation of groups of synonyms occupying different registers (contexts within which they may be used): freedom and liberty; happiness and felicity; depth and profundity.

Insights into the relationships between such synonyms can be gleaned by comparing their uses in forming new words. The Old English word bird gives us a term of abuse, birdbrain, Latin avis is the source of more technical words such as aviation and aviary, while Greek ornith is the root of exclusively scientific formations, such as ornithology."
(Simon Horobin, How English Became English. Oxford University Press, 2016)

Synonymia as a Rhetorical Figure

"Synonymia is a figure that has come down in the world. . . . The foundation-stone of Erasmus's theory of eloquence and of 16th-century literary practice, it had begun to fall out of fashion by 1600 and so became associated with acknowledged 'vices of style' such as repetitiousness (tautology), redundancy (pleonasm), and general long-windedness (macrology).

. . . In literary criticism, it is either ignored or introduced apologetically as a stumbling-block to modern readers' enjoyment of Tudor writing. . . .

"At one end of its modern spectrum is its 'realistic' use, illustrated below from a recent Ruth Rendell novel, where synonymia is a character indicator in the speech-style of a minor character, George Troy.

'I'm retired, you see,' he went on. 'Yes, I've given up gainful employment, a bit of an old has-been, that's me. No longer the breadwinner . . ..
But she--well, she has such grasp, she has such ability to manage things, organise, you know, get everything straight--well, shipshape and Bristol fashion . . .​
[ The Babes in the Woods, 2004]

To judge by the comments of other characters, Rendell expects her readers to find Troy's verbal variations either irritating or pathetic, irritating as a form of futile verbosity, pathetic as a symptom of encroaching senility."
(Sylvia Adamson, "Synonymia: or, in Other Words." Renaissance Figures of Speech, ed. by Sylvia Adamson, Gavin Alexander, and Katrin Ettenhuber. Cambridge University Press, 2008)

The Lighter Side of Synonyms

"We have so many ways of saying hello. Howdy, hi there, how are ya, how ya doin', how's it goin', how do ya do, what's new, what's goin' on, whaddaya think, whaddaya hear, whaddaya say, whaddaya feel, what's happenin', what's shakin', que pasa, what's goin' down, and what it is?"
(George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty, 2001)

"Relax? I can't relax! Nor can I yield, relent, or .

. . Only two synonyms? Oh my! I'm losing my perspicacity!"
(Lisa, The Simpsons)

"A synonym is a word you use when you can't spell the other one."
(attributed to Baltasar Gracian)

"Intoxicated? The word did not express it by a mile. He was oiled, boiled, fried, plastered, whiffled, sozzled, and blotto."
(P.G. Wodehouse, Meet Mr. Mulliner, 1927)

"The English language includes more synonyms for 'drunk' than for any other word."
(Paul Dickson, Intoxerated: The Definitive Drinker's Dictionary. Melville House, 2012.)

Here are just a few of the 2,964 synonyms for drunk in Dickson's Intoxerated:
Liza Minellied
messed up
off the wagon
three sheets to the wind

Pronunciation: SIN-eh-nim