Synonyms in English

A Synonym is a word which has almost exactly the same meaning as another word. For example:

student – pupil

old – ancient

Note: Compare this with antonyms‏‎ which are words of opposite meanings.

In English, there are no perfect synonyms. Two words may be very similar and appear identical in meaning, but they will be used in slightly different contexts or have a very subtle difference in meaning or association. This gives rise to some words which have many different synonyms:

big, huge, massive, gigantic, titanic, enormous…

Note that some people say that a synonym is a word you use in place of one you can’t spell!

Source of Synonyms

English contains many synonyms because of the history of the language and the way in which it absorbed other languages.

For example, when the Normans invaded England in 1066 they brought with them many Old French words which were used alongside the Old English words already in use, for example:

pork – swine
royal – kingly

In time the Old French words took on a slightly more formal or sophisticated meaning. This was because it was used by the ruling classes (i.e. the Victors) whereas Old English was used by the working classes (the Losers).

A common English peasant had a yard while a Norman aristocrat had a garden.

A common English peasant ate cow while a Norman aristocrat ate beef.

A common English peasant bought something while a Norman aristocrat purchased something.

And today although purchase and buy mean pretty much the same thing, they have slightly different connotations and implications.

A collection of synonyms can be found in a thesaurus. The most famous thesaurus is arguably Roget’s Thesaurus which collects synonyms and classifies them both alphabetically but also by concept.


Lexicographer Paul Dickson is a consulting editor at Merriam-Webster known for collecting the most synonyms for any term in the English language.

His personal record on the Guinness Book of World Records is 2,964 terms meaning drunk. The most synonyms collected for any one term!

The record was previously held by none other than Benjamin Franklin, who published his own list of synonyms for drunk in The Drinker’s Dictionary in 1736.


The word synonym was first used around the 15th century. It comes – via Latin and French – from the Ancient Greek‏‎ synonymon. This is made from two words, syn (or sun) which means with, and onoma which means name.

Useful Links

Collins English Thesaurus – an online dictionary of synonyms from Collins in British English or American English

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Posted in Vocabulary & Spelling.

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