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DominicX's avatar

Are there any complete synonyms in English?

Asked by DominicX (28777points) November 4th, 2010

I’m kind of inventing my own linguistic term here (I think), but what I mean by “complete synonyms” are two words that have the exact same meaning (and connotations) and are completely interchangeable. I was thinking about the fact that most examples of synonyms in English have slight differences in meaning or connotations.

Is there such an example in English? I asked my professor this and he gave me the example of “sofa” and “couch” as being the closest he could think of, but the dictionary seems to indicate that while the terms are essentially used interchangeably, a “sofa” can be longer than a couch and always has arms. (To me, however, “sofa” and “couch” did seem to be complete synonyms, as I had never known of any distinction between the two).

Are there any examples of “complete synonyms” in English? Or at least an example of two words having complete synonymy in your mind?

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39 Answers

camertron's avatar

How ‘bout these: event, occasion, occurrence.
Or these: position, location
Or these: speak, talk, say (maybe not as complete)

tedd's avatar


The English language has a ton of these

DominicX's avatar


But can “home” and “domicile” really be used entirely interchangeably? “Domicile” is actually sometimes a legal term and a the words “home” and “domicile” have other definitions where they could not be used interchangeably, for example, “the home of the baseball team”. You couldn’t say “the domicile of the baseball team”. I’m looking for words that can be used interchangeably in all cases.


Same goes for “event, occasion, occurrence”. While all three can mean “something that happens”, an “event” can also be a larger “happening”, something planned, a show, or a gathering. “Occurence” and “occasion” don’t really work for that definition…

nikipedia's avatar

Use and utilize? (The existence of “utilize” has always seemed superfluous to me.)

tedd's avatar

@DominicX Well yah they can’t be turned around and used like the Domicile of the baseball team… but they can very easily be interchanged for a lot of uses… Domicile is just a more technical way of saying home, where i live.

DominicX's avatar


Yeah, maybe this is more of a wild goose chase. It’s pretty difficult to find absolutes in general, and even less likely to find absolutes in languages (especially English!). Maybe then there are terms that come so close to interchangeability (such as most people using them interchangeably in all cases) that they can be considered entirely interchangeable (such as “sofa” and “couch”).


I was thinking of that too. They really seem to be the same. One thing I noticed about “utilize”, and feel free to correct me, is that if you say “I use drugs”, you could say “I utilize drugs” but it implies “I utilize drugs for…”. It seems to almost require a complement.

JLeslie's avatar

Spicy and hot?

DominicX's avatar


Well, you wouldn’t say “it was a spicy summer day”. lol

I guess what I mean is: “are the any instances of X where Y would not be appropriate?”

For me, “sofa” and “couch” work because I’ve never seen any difference between them and there are no instances of “couch” where “sofa” wouldn’t also work and vice versa. The dictionary seems to think otherwise, but for most people I know, they’re complete synonyms. That’s why it might be easier to ask about people’s personal usage of words.

JLeslie's avatar

Well, it is because hot has many definitions, but the definition of hot, signifying spicy, I think is arguably perfectly synonomous. What do you think? English has so many words with multiple definitions that it makes it tricky if you want two words that really mean the same thing in all instances. But I guess that is what you are looking for?

DominicX's avatar

Originally when I posted this question, yes, I was looking for two words that mean the same thing in all instances. But I’m starting to realize that that may be impossible.

One thing I was thinking of was Latin, actually. The words “atque” and “et” both mean “and” and I can’t see any difference between them other than that “atque” can sometimes mean “and also”. But does that mean they’re not perfect synonyms? Not sure. When they mean “and” they are used in the exact same cases, so maybe they are.

In the couch/sofa example, I was really only referring to the furniture without realizing it. Looking up “couch” reveals that “couch” has other meanings not referring to furniture. But in the context of furniture, they seem interchangeable.

JLeslie's avatar

How about castigate and punish?

I don’t know Latin, so I cannot comment on that example.

lillycoyote's avatar

What about “gift” and “present?”

JLeslie's avatar

Gift and present are good I think. Although, present is typically used for children.

Supacase's avatar

artificial and fake
fib and untruth
talk and speak

DominicX's avatar

I’m starting to realize that this question kind of self-destructs a bit. It doesn’t seem to make much sense to say “within the context of physical gifts, “present” and “gift” are the same”. Now it’s just narrowing down these definitions too much…because “present” doesn’t work when you talk about someone’s “gift” of musical ability.


“Speak” and “talk” are very interesting; the only difference I can think of is you don’t say “talk a language”

lloydbird's avatar

Not quite sure I understand the question, but, flammable and inflammable come to mind.

DominicX's avatar


Yes! I think this one works. The words “flammable” and “inflammable” are completely interchangeable afaik. In any case of using the word, one can be substituted for the other and the sentences makes sense.

And that’s what I was asking. Two words that can be substituted for one another in any case and the sentence will work. It seems to be very difficult to find two such words.

And this doesn’t include idiomatic or figurative uses…

JLeslie's avatar

So do irregardless and regardless, even though in my opinion irregardless should not be a word.

lillycoyote's avatar

Good for you @lloydbird

And how goofy a language is English? The only two words that anyone has been able to come up with so far that seem to meet @DominicX ‘s definition of “complete synonyms,” flammable and inflammable, really should be antonyms.

DominicX's avatar

Interesting note about “inflammable” and “flammable”:

The word “inflammable” comes from the Latin word “inflammare” meaning “to set on fire”. The word “flammable” was created as a truncation of “inflammable” to avoid confusion in the 19th century (“Inflammable” dates from the 16th century). The confusion comes from the fact that, in Latin (and English words that come from Latin), the prefix “in-” means “not” in adjectives and nouns (inaudible, indistinct, etc.) but the prefix ”-in” means “in” in verbs (induce, inundate, etc.)

JLeslie's avatar

Are infamous and famous the same? I never understood the difference.

DominicX's avatar

That one’s confusing too. :P It does come from the Latin prefix “in” meaning “not” (rather than meaning “in”) and the word “fama” meaning “fame” or “reputation”. But in Latin rather than literally meaning “not famous” it meant “ill-famed”. Here “in” provides general negativity rather than literally meaning “not”.

camertron's avatar

@lloydbird flammable and inflammable are completely opposite words. How are those synonyms at all? Same goes for you @JLeslie.

DominicX's avatar


Actually, they’re not. Check a dictionary. :)

JLeslie's avatar

@camertron Are you talking about infamous and famous?

anartist's avatar

@JLeslie Infamous and famous are different. Infamous is to be famous for something bad, like notorious. It is a subset of famous.

but there is always ravelled and unravelled
“Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve (sleave) of care.”

lifeflame's avatar

I love this question. It’s really making me rack my brains

YARNLADY's avatar

Many words have multiple definitions, and when you compare them, you will find that there are overlaps (synonyms) and differences between the same two words you try to compare. Love and sex are often used interchangeably, yet love doesn’t always mean sex, and sex doesn’t always mean love.

Trillian's avatar

ir·re·gard·less adv \ˌir-i-ˈgärd-ləs\
Definition of IRREGARDLESS
nonstandard : regardless
Usage Discussion of IRREGARDLESS
Irregardless originated in dialectal American speech in the early 20th century. Its fairly widespread use in speech called it to the attention of usage commentators as early as 1927. The most frequently repeated remark about it is that “there is no such word.” There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.

Use of this “word” is in the same category as; “unthaw” and “vice” instead of the word “versus”. Just because people use words does not make them correct. When I hear someone use “irregardless”, “unthaw”, “vice” in the afore mentioned context, “supposably” or others which I can’t get into, I have a tendency to dismiss what they say. It indicates to me a lack of something. I could be completely wrong about the person, I realize. But that is my initial reaction. I automatically think the person is stupid.
@DominicX how about couch and settee?

camertron's avatar

@DominicX huh. You’re absolutely right. That’s totally counter-intuitive to me! Adding “in” at the beginning of “flammable” should be like adding “in” to the beginning of “eligible.” Eligible and ineligible are opposite words (as far as I know). It’s weird that “flammable” doesn’t work the same way.

lifeflame's avatar

valuable and invaluable also work like so. weird…

absalom's avatar

I have to think of words like prior and before, which are close, except one could not exactly say, “I have a before engagement,” whereas “I have a prior engagement” is common.

So we would have to amend it to prior to and before, which might be considered cheating because it’s not only a phrase but also Latinate, but it seems to me as though there’s no distinction. (Unless my brain’s not working and I’m missing something, which is totally possible because it’s finals week.)

Edit: Damn, rethinking this has reminded me that before can also indicate a spatial relationship whereas prior (to) cannot.

Fail. GQ.

DominicX's avatar


E for effort. :D

Jeruba's avatar

@DominicX, three examples are mentioned in this book (page 108):

“Some Old English and Old Norse words survive side by side as synonyms. These include no (Old English) and nay; hide and skin; sick and ill.

I wouldn’t say “nay” except jocularly, but can’t deny that I’d understand it to mean exactly what “no” means. I wouldn’t use “hide” and “skin” interchangeably for a person, but for an animal I suppose I would. I’d be hard pressed to distinguish between “sick” and “ill,” even though I think I use them slightly differently.

Jasim's avatar

Probably “pull” and “haul”? Or maybe “choose” and “pick”?

Jeruba's avatar

Nope, @Jasim. A synonym in one context may be completely inappropriate in another. Some “haul” phrases don’t work with “pull,” and many “pull” expressions don’t work with “haul.”
haul garbage
haul ass
pull rank
pull a fast one
pull a tooth
Same with “choose” and “pick.” “Pick” has meanings that have nothing to do with choosing; for example, to pick your teeth (with a toothpick).

dhmjdds's avatar

Also and too

Jeruba's avatar

@dhmjdds: would you say “These boots are also tight” instead of “These boots are too tight”?

Do you think these sentences mean the same thing?
“Smith also ran for Congress in 2004.”
“Smith too ran for Congress in 2004.”

No, they are not complete synonyms. Sometimes they’re interchangeable and sometimes they’re not.

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