14 of the Funniest English Synonyms
One of the things that makes English a challenging language to learn is the sheer number of synonyms it contains.
Synonyms are words that mean the same thing – or very nearly the same thing – as other words, in the same language. In some instances there are numerous different ways of saying the same thing – and some of those synonyms are nothing short of ridiculous, either in their great number or in the sense that one would have thought they’d mean entirely the opposite. The examples in this article all illustrate the richness of the English language: its subtleties, interesting etymologies, and delightful peculiarity.
1. Love means nothing
In English, we have numerous ways of saying “zero”, but unless you’re a tennis fan, you might not have known that “love” and “nothing” can mean the same thing. “Love” in tennis scoring means zero; “nothing” is also a way of saying zero. And so is “nought”, “nil”, “oh” (think how you would pronounce James Bond’s code name, 007), “zilch”, and “nada”. Perhaps these variations are a way of softening the blow of delivering someone the bad news that they’ve scored a pitiful zero!
2. “It’s just puppy fat”
The word “fat” is loaded with negative connotations about weight these days, which is perhaps why we’ve developed so many different ways of saying it. Other ways of saying it include “pudgy”, “podgy” “chubby”, “portly”, “plump”, “rotund” and “stout”. These synonyms, while all meaning essentially the same things, have developed their own particular connotations. For example, the word “pudgy” is often used to describe a plump young child who will grow out of what we call their “puppy fat” – a bit of extra fatty tissue they might be carrying as they grow up, that will disappear by adolescence. “Rotund”, on the other hand, is a slightly archaic way to describe an older man with a larger waistline; it’s the sort of word Charles Dickens would use to describe a gluttonous older man who perhaps enjoys rather too much of the finer things in life (namely too much food and fine wine).
Sticking with the size theme, the improbable-sounding word “Brobdingnagian” means “gigantic”. It comes from Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels, in which the land of the giants is called Brobdingnag. It’s a more unusual synonym that most people don’t know about, and for those who are unaware of this mouthful of a word, there are plenty of others that mean the same thing: “massive”, “large”, “sizable”, “substantial”, “great”, “immense”, “enormous”, “extensive”, “huge”, “colossal”, “gargantuan”, “elephantine”, “titanic”, “vast”, “mammoth”… the list goes on. Some of these synonyms jump out as interesting. A “mammoth”, for instance, is a prehistoric elephant-like creature of great proportions, and it now lends its name to anything large (“I have a mammoth pile of work” is an expression you might hear at university). “Titanic” is a word you’ll probably recognise on account of the world’s most famous ship; it comes from the Titans of Greek mythology – incredibly powerful, immortal giants who were also gods and goddesses.
There are infinite shades of colour, so it’s not surprising that we have so many words for describing different hues. Red has a particularly interesting variety of synonyms. One of the most famous instances of the colour red is in the novel “The Scarlet Pimpernel”; scarlet being a vivid red with a vaguely orange tinge. “Rosy” is another synonym for red, and one that’s particularly associated with the idea of “rosy cheeks” – cheeks glowing red with good health, or on a cold day. “Crimson” is a more poetic word for red, though its origins are less romantic than it sounds: the name is derived from the Latin name for the dye produced from Kermes scale insects, which is a vivid red colour. “Vermillion” is another interesting word for red; it’s a brilliant shade of red that comes from an expensive mineral called cinnabar, and it’s associated with wealthy Roman villas, the owners of which used it in their frescoes to demonstrate their wealth.
5. It never rains, but it pours
Given the fact that we Brits are known for our obsession with the weather, it won’t come as much of a surprise to you that we have numerous different ways of describing the rain. Most of our synonyms for rain describe a particular quality of it. For example, “drizzle” is very fine rain that tends to hang around. A “shower” is a sudden burst of rain, often on a sunny day, that clears up as quickly as it arrived. “Sleet” is rain that’s slightly frozen, so it’s almost as though it’s raining and snowing at the same time. When it’s “spitting”, it’s just a few drops of rain here and there, while a “deluge” or “torrent” is a torrential “downpour” of very heavy rain, usually lasting a prolonged period of time. Thus the expression “pouring with rain”.
6. From odd to great
A number of words exist in the English language that have taken on different meanings to how they were originally used. This is true of many words that originally designated anything noteworthy for being a bit odd, which are now used to mean “brilliant”. These synonyms include “remarkable”, “fantastic” and “incredible”. Something akin to the original use of the word “fantastic” can be seen in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which uses the word to indicate the magical aspect of these creatures. But you can also say “I’m having a fantastic day” to indicate that you’re having a really good day, which is a rather different usage.
7. The throne
It’s probably because we’re so prudish that we have numerous words for the toilet, and it’s likely the Victorians we have to thank for that. We have many ways of referring to the toilet, with perhaps the most common being “loo” (nobody is really sure where this comes from). More mundane synonyms include “lavatory”, “lav”, “water closet”, “WC” and “latrine”, as well as the more archaic “privy”, which is popularly associated with the Medieval period and is derived from the word “private” in Old French and, before that, Latin. In the 1920s a colloquial term for the toilet sprung up that persists to this day: “throne”, a word usually associated with the elevated seat upon which a monarch sits.
8. “Grub” – more appetising than it sounds
We have quite a few ways of referring to food, among them “fare”, “a bite to eat”, “fodder”, “provisions”, “rations”, “refreshments” and “sustenance”. But the oddest synonym has to be the colloquial “grub”, as in “pub grub” or “let’s go and get some grub, I’m starving”. The peculiar thing about this, though, is the real meaning of the word “grub”: it’s an insect larva or maggot! What’s more, “grubby” means “dirty” – again, not a quality one would wish to associate with something one eats. All is explained by the word’s origins: it comes from an Old Germanic word for digging, and had early associations with digging and foraging for food, such as roots; larvae are often found in the ground, so that’s where they get their name from too.
9. When the word “letter” gets dull
You have plenty of alternatives in the event that you become bored with the word “letter”, as in “posting you a letter”. “Note” is a bit dull (and tends to describe a shorter letter or “memo” – a note reminding someone to do something or informing them of something), but “missive” and “epistle” are much more interesting. “Epistle” has Greek roots, coming from the word “epistolē”, meaning “send news”; it’s not a word you hear used much today, except by writers and journalists looking to add a bit more colour to their language. “Missive” has connotations of long, official and possibly boring communications. The word “dispatch” is another word for letter, but has a particularly military context, being used to describe official reports, such as a battle update sent to one’s superiors.
10. “Wicked” isn’t all bad
There are hundreds of ways of expressing a sentiment that roughly means “good” – in fact, it’s one of the words with the most synonyms in the English language. These range from the run-of-the-mill “nice”, “super”, “marvellous” or “great” to more colloquial synonyms such as “ace”, “spiffing” (outdated), “first rate” or “tip top”. Bizarrely, though, one colloquial synonym for “good” is “wicked”, a word that has entirely the opposite meaning (it means “evil”). An example of its use would be “that’s a wicked T-shirt you’re wearing” (this usage is mainly employed by young people). It can also mean “playfully mischievous”, as in “a wicked sense of humour”.
We may not be known for expressing our emotions here in Britain (though we are getting better at it), but we certainly have an appreciation of their complexity, as evidenced by the fact that we have numerous ways of describing the nuances of our feelings. Even happiness has a great many synonyms, most of which describe slightly different forms of happiness. “Cheerful”, for instance, describes an upbeat attitude (though someone who’s cheerful could still be sad inside, as it’s more a description of their exterior countenance); “ecstatic” and “overjoyed” describe overwhelming happiness; “content” describes a pleasant feeling of peace with one’s lot. “Tickled pink” means that you’re very pleased with something, while “gleeful” describes a feeling of joy. Less often used is the old-fashioned word “jocund”, which means lighthearted and cheerful; it comes from the Latin “jucundus”, meaning “pleasant”.
We have many different words to describe roads, most of which say something about the nature of the road. “Lane”, for example, denotes a very small road and has connotations of the countryside; one would imagine a lane to be bordered by hedges, and to have a strip of grass down the middle. “Avenue” conjures up images of a wider, straight road in a city, lined with trees, while “street” is a generic word for a paved road, usually with a “pavement” for pedestrians (the American word for this is “sidewalk”). But what about “artery” – isn’t that a major blood vessel? It is, but it’s also a way of referring to an important route in a system of roads (or rivers, canals or railways, for that matter).
13. Man’s best friend
You wouldn’t have thought it was necessary to have more than one word with which to refer to a dog, but we do. The phrase “man’s best friend” is universally recognised as referring to dogs, while the terms “pooch”, “fido”, “tail-wagger”, “bowwow”, “mongrel” and “mutt” are all alternative words for dog, the latter two implying a dog of mixed breeds. “Fido”, now occasionally used to refer to any dog, was a famous Italian street dog who, in the 1940s and 50s, tragically waited fourteen years for his dead master to return. The name comes from the Latin “fidus”, meaning “faithful”, a virtue particularly strongly associated with dogs. The less obvious “bowwow” comes from the noise a dog makes when it barks.
14. Flammable and inflammable
We’ve saved the most baffling one for last. These two words sound as though they’d mean completely the opposite of each other, but they actually mean the same thing! Something that’s “flammable” is liable to set on fire easily – but so is something that’s “inflammable”. Apparently the original word was “inflammable”, while the word “flammable” only started being used in the 1920s to mean exactly the same thing. The reason it was deemed necessary to use “flammable” was because people were worried that “inflammable” might be understood to mean “not flammable”, as one might surmise from its spelling. At the root of the “in” prefix is the Latin “en” – as seen in the word “enriched” – which is why it doesn’t mean “un-” (as in “unlikely”). According to the Guardian Style Guide, “non-flammable” is an acceptable means of expressing the opposite of flammable and inflammable.
If you need help getting to grips with your synonyms, why not sign up for one of our English as a Foreign Language (EFL) courses?
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