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Why does English have so many synonyms?

Q: I’d like to know why there are so many synonyms in English. Take, for instance, the many words that mean very good: “stupendous,” “wonderful,” “marvelous,” “incredible,” “unbelievable,” etc. Each of these must have had a separate meaning at one time. Now, they all mean pretty much the same thing.

A: This isn’t an easy question to answer in a single blog posting. There are quite a few reasons why English has so many synonyms. I’ll touch on two of them.

(1) The first has to do with the sources of English words. English is a Germanic language, and much of its vocabulary comes from older (and in some cases defunct) Teutonic languages.

But because the Anglo-Saxons were invaded in 1066 and thereafter ruled by Anglo-Norman speakers for a few hundred years, English acquired a vast number of words from French and Latin as well.

This grossly oversimplifies the story, but the short version is that English has two principal strains from which it has acquired the bulk of its words – Germanic languages and Romance languages. As a result, it has gotten a double dose of vocabulary words.

In addition, English has adopted words from many other languages – Arabic, Hindi, Chinese, Yiddish, Algonquian, etc. – as Britain colonized, traded with, and absorbed people from other parts of the world.

What this means in practice is that quite often English has retained synonyms (or near synonyms) acquired from different sources. Examples: “increase” (Old French), “augment” (Latin), and “grow” (Old Teutonic).

At the same time, some words that seem identical (the “ear” that you hear with vs. an “ear” of corn, for example) have different meanings because one came from Latin (the one for hearing) and one is Germanic (the one that means a spike of grain). That accounts for some identical words that have dual meanings.

And some very different words that sound alike (“right” and “write,” for example), come from different sources (“right” is from Latin and “write” is Germanic).

(2) Once words are absorbed into English, their meanings tend to shift with common usage. That’s why “cute,” which once meant sharp or shrewd, has now come to mean daintily attractive.

That is also how negative words become positive and vice-versa: “awful” used to mean awe-inspiring, and “wonderful” used to mean wonder-producing (and was often negative). And “incredible,” which once meant literally “not credible,” has come to mean very good in the mouths of some speakers.

If you’d like to read more, I wrote a blog entry recently about how the meanings of words shift.

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