Synonymy Definition and Examples

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"Pumpkins are synonymous with October.".

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Pronunciation: si-NON-eh-mi

Definition: The semantic qualities or sense relations that exist between words (lexemes) with closely related meanings (i.e., synonyms). Plural: synonymies. Contrast with antonymy.

Synonymy may also refer to the study of synonyms or to a list of synonyms.

In the words of Dagmar Divjak, near-synonymy (the relationship between different lexemes that express similar meanings) is "a fundamental phenomenon that influences the structure of our lexical knowledge" (Structuring the Lexicon, 2010).

Examples and Observations

  • "The phenomenon of synonymy is a central interest for both the semanticist and the language learner. For the former, synonymy is an important member of the theoretical set of logical relations existing in language. For the latter, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that vocabulary is often best acquired by analogy, in other words, remembered as being similar in meaning to previously acquired forms... In addition, what we might term 'definition through synonym' is a central feature of most dictionary organisation (Ilson 1991: 294-6). For motives of stylistic variation, non-native learners and translators have a pressing need to find lexical alternatives to express a particular concept, especially in writing. Harvey & Yuill (1994) found that searches for synonyms accounted for over 10 percent of dictionary consultations when learners were engaged in a writing task. However, given the rarity of absolute synonymy, learners also need to know which of the particular synonyms given by dictionaries and thesauruses is the most suitable for any given context."
    (Alan Partington, Patterns and Meanings: Using Corpora for English Language Research and Teaching. John Benjamins, 1998)​
  • The Productivity of Synonymy - "The productivity of synonymy is clearly observable. If we invent a new word that represents (to some extent) the same thing that an existing word in the language represents, then the new word is automatically a synonym of the older word. For example, every time a new slang term meaning 'automobile' is invented, a synonym relation is predicted for the new slang term (say, ride) and the standard and slang terms that already exist (car, auto, wheels, etc.). Ride does not need to be inducted as a member of the synonym set—no one has to say 'ride means the same thing as car' in order for the synonym relation to be understood. All that must happen is that ride must be used and understood to mean the same thing as car—as in My new ride is a Honda."
    (M. Lynne Murphy, Semantic Relations and the Lexicon. Cambridge University Press, 2003)
  • Synonymy, Near-Synonymy, and Degrees of Formality - "It should be noted that the idea of 'sameness of meaning' used in discussing synonymy is not necessarily 'total sameness.' There are many occasions when one word is appropriate in a sentence, but its synonym would be odd. For example, whereas the word answer fits in this sentence: Cathy had only one answer correct on the test, its near-synonym, reply, would sound odd. Synonymous forms may also differ in terms of formality. The sentence My father purchased a large automobile seems much more serious than the following casual version, with four synonymous replacements: My dad bought a big car."
    (George Yule, The Study of Language, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • Synonymy and Polysemy - "What defines synonymy is precisely the possibility of substituting words in given contexts without altering the objective and affective meaning. Inversely, the irreducible character of the phenomenon of synonymy is confirmed by the possibility of providing synonyms for the various acceptations of a single word (this is the commutative test of polysemy itself): the word review is the synonym sometimes of 'parade,' sometimes of 'magazine.' In every case a community of meaning is at the bottom of synonymy. Because it is an irreducible phenomenon, synonymy can play two roles at once: offering a stylistic resource for fine distinctions (peak instead of summit, minuscule for minute, etc.), and indeed for emphasis, for reinforcement, for piling-on, as in the mannerist style of [French poet Charles] Péguy; and providing a test of commutativity for polysemy. Identity and difference can be accentuated in turn in the notion of partial semantic identity.
  • "So polysemy is defined initially as the inverse of synonymy, as [French philologist Michel] Bréal was the first to observe: now not several names for one sense (synonymy), but several senses for one name (polysemy)."
    (Paul Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-Disciplinary Studies in the Creation of Meaning in Language, 1975; translated by Robert Czerny. University of Toronto Press, 1977)
  • A kangaroo word is a type of wordplay in which is a word can be found inside its synonym.
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Synonymy Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Synonymy Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Synonymy Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).