One reason we have so many synonyms is a legacy of English history.
Anglo-Saxon was spoken until the Normans invaded England in 1066 when William the Conqueror made French the language of the courts. Anglo-Saxon was spoken by the peasants and French by the aristocracy, which is why so many English words have twins. For instance, baby from Anglo-Saxon, infant from French, ask (AS)/ enquire (Fr), freedom (AS)/ liberty (Fr) and so on.
A second reason is also based in history. The British Empire in its heyday had many overseas colonies, and also traded with foreign countries from which they imported not only goods but also vocabulary. Shampoo from the Hindi tongue, embargo from Spanish, banana from West African Wolof and kowtow from Chinese. Some have given us a second term for a word, such as ketchup (from Chinese) while we also have tomato sauce (tomato from Aztecan and sauce from French). Mumbo jumbo (African) is yet another word for gobbledegook, gibberish and double Dutch which all mean unintelligible speech.
Because of this, English has far more synonyms than most languages, although they might not always be exactly the same. Remember that a synonym is a word with the same or similar meaning, such as tepid/lukewarm or big/large.
Around the compiling table here at Lovatts, we have some lively debates about the various nuances of the synonyms we use as crossword clues.
Recently, we received a query about the clue ‘Sang like a canary’. The puzzler felt the answer should have been ‘trilled’ instead of ‘warbled’ because canaries don’t warble. However, in the Oxford dictionary, both trill and warble are interchangeable.
Is marzipan the same as almond paste? Marzipan is a paste, made of almonds, and in some circles, they are the same. On Nigella Lawson’s website, she explains that marzipan has more sugar and is therefore easier to roll out, so is used for covering cakes. But as far as a clue goes, it’s close enough.
Porch, balcony and veranda seem fairly similar, but there are differences. A balcony is a deck on an upper floor, a veranda is on the ground floor and a porch is a shelter around a doorway.
I could say that our language is stupendous, marvellous, wonderful, fantastic, fabulous, incredible… and use many other awesome adjectives. It’s a language made for crosswords.