I. What is a Synonym?
A synonym (sin–uh-nim) is a word that has the same or nearly the same meaning as another word. When words or phrases have the same meaning, we say that they are synonymous with each other. The term synonym comes from a combination of the Ancient Greek syn, meaning with, and onoma, meaning “name.” Synonyms are regular and essential parts of everyday language that we use almost without thinking. They come in all parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and so on. What’s more, synonyms are so important that there is a whole reference work dedicated to them, called a thesaurus—it’s a dictionary of synonyms!
II. Examples of Synonyms
Here are some synonyms of words you use every day:
- Bad: awful, terrible, horrible
- Good: fine, excellent, great
- Hot: burning, fiery, boiling
- Cold: chilly, freezing, frosty
- Easy: Simple, effortless, straightforward
- Hard: difficult, challenging, tough
- Big: large, huge, giant
- Small: tiny, little, mini
Now, read the three sentences below:
- The small child was quickly eating a cold ice cream cone, which gave him a bad headache.
- The little kid was rapidly gobbling a frosty ice cream cone, which gave him an awful headache.
- The youngster was speedily consuming a freezing ice cream cone, which gave him a terrible headache.
As you can see, the three sentences above share the same situation, but, Sentences 2 and 3 paint a better picture because they use synonyms for some of the dull words in Sentence 1. Words like “rapidly,” “gobbling,” “awful,” and “terrible” are much more descriptive than “quickly,” “eating,” and “bad”—they have the same meanings as Sentence 1, but stronger connotations.
III. Types of Synonyms
Synonyms exist as parts of speech. Here are some examples:
- Teach, instruct, educate
- Seek, search, look for
- Teacher, instructor, educator
- Test, exam, assessment
- Smart, intelligent, clever
- Dumb, stupid, slow
- Very, really, extremely
- Quietly, silently, without a sound
IV. Importance of Synonyms
Since word choice is everything in language (probably the most crucial part!), the importance of synonyms is beyond measure. Synonyms make language more interesting, more meaningful, and more relevant. They have a huge, central role in word choice for both prose and poetry. In fact, you could argue that poetry wouldn’t even exist without synonyms—one of the main reasons we use them is to be descriptive, creative, and expressive, and poetry relies on those three things. Imagine what writing, reading, and speaking would be like if there were only one word for everything! Language would be boring, and would have no room for creativity.
The way words are chosen and used is often what defines a piece of literature; so, synonyms allow all authors to develop their own styles and voices when creating their works. Another main reason we use synonyms is because words often share the same meanings but have different connotations (a word’s implied meaning). For example, you might say “the soup’s aroma was in the air,” which makes it sound delicious, but “the soup’s odor was in the air” makes it sound terrible. So, an author chooses a synonym based on its positive, negative, or neutral connotation. This helps writers say what they mean, and how they mean it.
V. Examples of Synonyms in Literature
As mentioned, poetry probably wouldn’t exist without synonyms. In the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” William Wordsworth describes an afternoon walk that was particularly special for him. In the selection below, he uses synonyms to help his readers imagine the scene that he saw:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Here, Wordsworth uses the synonyms “crowd” and “host” to express that he saw a large number of daffodils, which made them much more magnificent. It’s a technique he is using to emphasize the beauty of his experience. By using two different words with the same meaning, he is able to paint a better picture with his words.
Synonyms are very important for creative, descriptive writing because authors choose certain words to fit their style and tone. In the poem “The Eagle,” Lord Tennyson uses synonyms for common words to create this detailed imagery:
He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.
Tennyson’s descriptive words paint a picture for the audience. But, if you remove the synonyms he uses, it would be much less picturesque. For example, he uses “azure” instead of “blue” to give you a better idea of the color of the sky, and “crag” which sounds rougher than “cliff.” Synonyms also make the poem more expressive; for instance, he uses “lonely” instead of “isolated”—both words have almost the same meaning, but “lonely” usually describes a human feeling, and “isolated” usually describes a place. As you can see, Tennyson carefully chose his words with purpose.
VI. Examples of Synonyms in Pop Culture
A popular advertising technique in today’s culture is to imply that a brand’s product is synonymous with the product itself. For example, we might say bleach is synonymous with Clorox, cola is synonymous with Coca-Cola, or Scotch tape is synonymous with adhesive tape. Foster’s beer uses this type of advertising in their campaign called “How to Speak Australian,” as in the following commercial:
Foster’s main tagline is “Foster’s: Australian for Beer.” They are “teaching” the audience that in the Australian language, “Foster’s” and “beer” have the same meaning. But, the joke is that “Australian” is just English, which already has a word for beer. So, Foster’s advertising method is to suggest to viewers that in Australia, the words “beer” and “Foster’s” are synonyms that can be used interchangeably.
Synonyms can be a great tool in comedy. In fact, many comic strips use them to make jokes about all sorts of topics. The comic below features the “Thesaurus Rex,” who, like a thesaurus, has lots of synonyms to share:
As you can see, the Thesaurus Rex uses many synonyms for “eating”, which he explains to his victim, while chasing him.
VII. Related Terms
An antonym is a word or phrase’s opposite meaning, and the opposite of a synonym.
In conclusion, synonyms are an essential part of the English language that we could not live without, in writing or speaking. They are the most powerful type of descriptive tool, making them an important part of both prose and poetry alike. Synonyms provide freedom for word choice and allow authors to choose words with the right connotation to fit their style and serve their purpose.