Synonymous with correct usage

One of the common mistakes I come across when I’m editing involves the word synonymous. You can see it in sentences like this:

Roger Federer is synonymous with great tennis.

Does that seem OK to you? If so, I’m afraid you’ve fallen prey to a confusion that affects many people. But it’s easy to explain.

A synonym is a word having the same meaning as another. It originally comes from the Greek syn (meaning same) and onyma (meaning name). Based on this, the adjective synonymous is defined as “having the same meaning”.

So big is synonymous with large and field is synonymous with meadow – but Roger Federer is not synonymous with great tennis. The man is associated with the game, sure, but the two terms don’t mean the same thing – otherwise people would talk about Serena Williams playing some really Roger Federer. And that’s obvious nonsense!

For centuries, people used synonymous without any difficulty, but recently some have started to extend its use, blurring the true meaning. This misuse is now widespread, but careful writers still avoid it – and so should you. If you use synonymous in this loose modern way, you risk not just confusing your audience but also degrading the word so much that it becomes unusable.

This would impoverish the English language and make it harder for us all to communicate. But it’s not too late to avert this, if we just make the small effort to use synonymous only in its original, logical, correct sense.

*

All of the above is bullshit.

But it’s the kind of confident, knowledgeable-sounding bullshit that often works. It uses the same kind of arguments, and makes the same kind of mistakes, as a lot of grammar/usage diatribes.

To start with, the extended meaning of synonymous is not even slightly modern. According to the OED, the “equivalent in meaning” sense was first recorded in 1610 and the “associated with” sense in 1659. The two meanings have peacefully coexisted for over 350 years.

Huge numbers of words have more than one definition. This means ambiguity is possible in theory – but in practice, context usually clarifies.

What’s more, unlike disinterested and decimate and fulsome and plethora and nonplussed and enormity and other disputed words, this is not an issue. I’ve checked more than a dozen usage guides, from the 21st century back to the 18th, and I can’t find anyone who thinks we shouldn’t use synonymous to mean “associated”. I can’t even find anyone who mentions the concern only to dismiss it.

This is a problem I invented.

The odd thing is that I didn’t invent it deliberately.

At some point, maybe during my 20s, I started noticing that some uses of synonymous were a bit distanced from the meaning of synonym. One of the more annoying parts of my brain quietly supplied the above line of thinking, which to the unwary has a superficial logic. And I was unwary. So, with only the best of intentions, I started following a completely imaginary rule of English.

I unwittingly conjured a unicorn and made it my pet peeve.

Only recently did I stop to think about it and check the evidence, and I was embarrassed to discover my delusion (not the first time this has happened). No doubt the extended meaning will continue to make me twitch, but from now on I’ll try to ignore the twitching.

Luckily, in my line of editing, the word doesn’t come up a lot, so I don’t think I wasted much of my time or did much harm to anyone’s writing. And, luckily, I didn’t pass my delusion on to anyone else.

But if I had been a Great Man of Letters in the 18th or 19th century, I might have written a book to share my wisdom. And the idea might have caught on. And generations of innocent people might have been harangued by valiant pedants who had no idea that I had no idea what I was talking about.

Many of the zombie rules that roam the land, eating people’s brains and refusing to die, started like that: someone had a logical-sounding idea about how English ought to work and didn’t think to check it out before sending it to the printer.

Even today, when online research is easy, popular writers tout their linguistic quirks as absolute rules.

*

Of course we can say that Roger Federer is synonymous with great tennis. And, because of the word’s two meanings, we can use it in puns:

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Comments

  • Clare Lynch  On July 20, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    Phew – you had me worried for a minute!

  • Michelle  On July 20, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Very, very cleverly written – a great read which I thoroughly enjoyed, even though I knew you were barking up the wrong tree to start with, it was so eloquently phases and made compelling (and almost convincing) reading🙂
    Thanks – I enjoyed this.

  • Goatllama  On July 20, 2015 at 1:51 pm

    You made my brain flip-flop. I may need a virus scan for my neurons, they’re too uncritical of arguments that ‘sound’ reasonable.

  • Timothy Gwyn  On July 20, 2015 at 10:02 pm

    I’ve retired from the Grammar Police. I even used the word bemused to mean vaguely amused recently. Maybe there was a side-order of puzzlement, but I couldn’t have done that while I was on the force.

  • popegrutch  On July 20, 2015 at 10:41 pm

    For a minute there, I thought you’d slipped back into being a prescriptivist. Nicely done.

  • Arul  On July 22, 2015 at 10:17 am

    THUMBS UP!

  • Lev  On July 22, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    I was rather surprised that this is considered a meaning of “synonymous”. I had thought that such usage was a metaphor.

  • booksaregifts  On July 29, 2015 at 5:16 pm

    Thanks for filing us all in! I never knew its true meaning, and I’ve made that mistake for a while then!

  • danseovietnam  On July 30, 2015 at 12:25 am

    For a minute there, I thought you’d slipped back into being a prescriptivist. Nicely done.

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