Synonyms: A Good Thing or Just Extra Stuff?

When looking through dictionaries of different languages, you begin to notice that for several languages, there aren’t too many words for the same thing. In Romance languages, there are never more than two or three words for the exact same meaning. If there are more words that translate to that meaning, the extras most likely have a different nuance.

Take the word, “blue.” In English, we have several words that can be this color: “azure,” “cerulean,” “sapphire,” or “cobalt”. While these words do have distinct shades when physically represented, we often use these words interchangeably, often for poetic or literary value. Sure, you could say that the night sky is blue, but that doesn’t provide nearly as much beauty or aesthetic depth as saying that it is sapphire. There are many words with such synonyms and interchangeability. This is not to say that English lacks nuanced vocabulary, because it doesn’t. Much of the nuance in English is implied through context, intonation, and emphasis.

I can’t say for every language, but many Romance languages, Hindi, and Kannada don’t have many synonyms. In literary works, there are a few more for writers to work with, but even those can have other meanings attached to them. But first, let’s define what a synonym is: a word that is identical in meaning and differs little otherwise. If a word has an extra nuance or meaning to it, then it’s a not a synonym.

For example, there are three words in Kannada that can be translated as, “embarrassment.” However, only one, talebaagisu, actually means “embarrassment,” as in, “humiliation,” or, “chagrin.” The other two, sankocha and aumana, are, “embarrassment,” when you receive a service or offer that is overly grand for the occasion and when you receive help when you don’t want it (a blow to your pride). As you can see, the nuance is very heavy, and all three words are very different.

We use synonyms all the time in English, whether it’s just another word or a euphemism. While other languages certainly have euphemisms, the ones that I’ve read and learned about have considerably fewer words of identical meanings used interchangeably. So the question is: What’s the point of having synonyms? Tell me what you think in the comments!

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I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.