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Two Secrets to Understanding English Synonyms

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Sometimes in English, we come across two words with exactly the same or a similar meaning. This can be confusing at times, but the history behind it is actually very interesting. Let's take a look at some of these more common synonyms and where they came from!

American English vs. British English: Fall and Autumn

In the US, Fall is our go-to term for that season between summer and winter, but UK English speakers use autumn. Both words have the exact same meaning, and while we clearly understand each other, one is simply more dominant than the other in each region. But why is that?

Autumn is an older word, dating back to the 14-15th centuries in England with Latin roots. Fall was not documented until the mid 16th century, as a word used to describe the "fall of the leaf" during this time of year.

But, around the 17th century, when the American Colonies called for independence, they didn't just mean from England itself, but also its language. There was a "spelling reform" that took place at this time, and fall is just one of those words that was taken and used to distinguish the new American English from British English.

Anglo-Saxon (Old English) vs. Norman French Variations: Finished and Unfinished Products

Learning English, you may come across word pairs such as cow/beef, pig/pork and chicken/poultry. But what's the difference? These similarities came about during the Norman invasion of England around 1066, where the new mix of English and French began to create word pairs that would distinguish "finished" and "unfinished" products. Let's take a look:

Cow 🐮 vs. Beef 🍔

The word cow distinguished the living animal from its finished food product, beef.

Pig 🐷 vs. Pork 🌭

Same idea here, where pig distinguishes the living animal from its edible version, pork.

Chicken 🐔 vs. Poultry 🍗

And again, here we have the living animal, chicken, distinguished from what we eat, poultry.

Words with English and Old French Variations

Finally, here we have some pairs such as smell/odor and buy/purchase. Here the difference is simply that, more often than not, the French-rooted versions of these words are regarded as sounding more posh or sophisticated than their Old English-rooted counterparts. Let's look at our examples:

Smell vs. Odor

Smell is the Old English-rooted word, whereas odor is its French-rooted counterpart. Using the word odor sounds more polite and sophisticated than the word smell. It sounds much nicer or much more polite to say "What is that odor?" than it does to say "What's that smell?"

Buy vs. Purchase

Again, same concept here: If you want to sound a bit fancier, you would use purchase.

For example, during a transaction, which is usually a more formal situation as you are exchanging money, you will more often hear "Thank you for your purchase!", which is simply more elegant than "Thank you for what you just bought!"

There we have it, the mystery of these synonyms has been solved! 🕵🏽‍♂️ Although it's more words for us to learn, knowing these variations can help us sound more native and elegant, depending on the situation.

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Noelle Ruta is an English and German teacher and coordinator for Amidon Studios. She previously taught German, English, French, and Italian at universities in the U.S. She holds a BA in German from Montclair State University. Originally from Long Island, New York, Noelle now lives in Dallas, Texas with her boyfriend and two cats.


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