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What Is Synonymia?

By Angie Bates
Updated: May 17, 2024

A rhetorical technique, synonymia links several synonyms together in a sentence. Used originally in Greek and Latin writings, synonymia helps to emphasize an idea by the use of repetition or to clarify a point by providing an immediate synonym. This technique is normally used sparingly since it can easily become a tautology, or an unneeded repetition of information.

Synonymia is used, in part, for emphasis and to draw attention to a particular characteristic, detail, or element of a person, event, or idea. For example, saying "Gwyn is beautiful, pretty, gorgeous, a knock-out," draws attention to Gwyn's appearance and gives the impression that she is not just a beautiful woman, but an exceptionally beautiful one. With each additional adjective, the overall idea that Gwyn is beautiful is amplified.

Clarification can also be aided by the use of synonymia. When explaining a technical or unfamiliar idea, listing several synonyms after a specific term may help the audience better understand the speaker. If an audience member does not understand the full meaning of one word, she or he may understand other words that are listed. This can be particularly beneficial to non-native, non-fluent speakers of a language who often have a limited vocabulary.

Erasmus, a European writer of the early 16th century, advised using synonymia in Latin rhetoric exercises to expand active vocabulary and help establish clear meanings. He cautioned, however, that synonyms were not carbon copies, because each word adds a slightly different meaning, and certain words are more appropriate to specific themes than others. To further this distinction, he categorized words in several different levels. For example, a word could be formal or informal, archaic or new, obscene or poetic. By having a wide variety of synonyms in his active vocabulary, Erasmus could incorporate synonyms from different levels into a sentence, thus bridging gaps in language.

For example, the sentence "this report must be completed anon, immediately, in a New York minute" combines the archaic term "anon" with the more formal word "immediately" and the idiom "in a New York minute" to bridge the gap between the no longer used, the formal, and slang. Each word adds a slightly different meaning, but all basically send the same message: the report needs to be completed very quickly. Additionally, the inclusion of several different types of words can aid in understanding across cultures, status, and time.

Despite the benefits of synonymia, the device should be used sparingly, particularly in formal rhetoric. When used unnecessarily or accidentally, synonymia becomes an tedious repetition and results in a tautology. Tautologies should be avoided because they often weaken arguments and create awkwardness.

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