Christine Lovatt

Synonym: “A word or phrase that means exactly or nearly the same as another word or phrase in the same language” – Oxford Dictionary

When is a synonym not a synonym? And does the synonym have a synonym of its own? Writing crossword clues for a living, we get to know quite a lot about synonyms – they become our friends. They help us out, although sometimes they are not as reliable as friends should be.

The word synonym comes from the Ancient Greek syn ‘with’ and onoma ‘name’.

In fact, very few synonyms mean EXACTLY the same as another word. We might clue HAPPY as ‘Joyful’ – but we use the two words in very different contexts. We don’t wish each other a ‘joyful birthday’ for instance. ‘Died’ might be used to clue EXPIRED but we wouldn’t say that our driving licence has ‘died’.

We are sometimes taken to task for using clues which solvers don’t think are very accurate.  Just recently, puzzler Michael Martinelli queried our use of the clue ‘Burgle’ for the answer ROB.  He says, quite rightly, that they are not synonymous – BURGLE means ‘to enter a building as a trespasser with intent to either steal, commit criminal damage or assault a person’ whereas ROB means ‘to steal from a person (e.g. in the street) with use of violence or threat of violence against the person’.

In fact, other synonyms are not quite the same either. STEAL, THIEVE and PURLOIN generally mean to take another’s possessions without using violence while PILFER means to steal small amounts only.

Because we specialise in large crosswords, we must keep clues short to fit them all onto the page, so we don’t have room to write a longer clue. And a clue is just that, a pointer in the right direction.

Our English language has more synonyms than any other language. Many of them emerged in the Middle Ages when England’s new ruling class spoke Norman French, while the lower classes still spoke Old English (Anglo-Saxon). Today English has a very large vocabulary because we have inherited a merge of two languages, Norman and Anglo-Saxon. Synonyms derived from each include people and folk, archer and bowman, liberty and freedom. Phrases combining Anglo-Saxon and Norman French doublets are also commonly used such as ‘law and order’, ‘love and cherish’ and ‘ways and means’. This is why crosswords work so well in English. But you must remember that the meanings of synonyms might not be EXACTLY the same.

Felicitous decrypting!