A synonym is defined as two words that mean the same thing. An example of this term is the words autumn and fall which are words that refer to the season between summer and winter. Yet, even in this simple example we find a problem. Fall is a simple one syllable word that suggests leaves falling off trees and fruit falling to the ground. It foreshadows the dormancy of life that is seen in winter.
On the other hand, the word autumn is euphonious. It evokes the beauty of the season. The colors of the leaves that are only seen in autumn. The word evokes the sense of urgency that can be lost in summer’s warmer days. Autumn is a time of plenty. The harvest comes in and all of nature’s bounty is seen. Life not death is showcased.
So, with that in mind, do synonyms really exist? I remember my professor in History of the English Language stating definitively that they did not. Each word has its own unique meaning. If you are using a thesaurus to spice up your writing all you are really doing is obscuring your meaning. It is certainly important to use language correctly. Finding the right can mean the difference between persecuting wrongdoers or prosecuting them.
So, all of this analysis suggests that synonyms are a social construct. Of course, in many ways language itself can be read as a social construct. Words have meaning because society agrees that they do. Social constructs at this basic level are necessary for society to function. If the geographic group where you live suddenly decided on a different meaning for basic sounds you would have no way to communicate.
Yet, synonyms are a few steps above this level. The existence of synonyms suggests that we do not believe we can accurately use language and instead must repeat ourselves. It may be better to view the construct of synonyms as a teaching tool. To children and those learning English we say this word is like this word instead of offering a complex definition. The trick is to move past this simplistic view as we learn more words.
Elizabeth Ramsay is English tutor and ESL Teacher.