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Words With Identical Meanings
March 23, 2012 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Does English have any words that mean the exact same thing?

I can think of lots of synonyms but not any words that are 100% interchangeable with identical meanings.

Help!
posted by shew to Writing & Language (97 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
twelve = dozen
posted by 3FLryan at 11:29 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


No.

Or at least not for very long.

The closest you will get are regional variations like couch/chesterfield or napkin/serviette, but event they start to get coloured by the connotation of their region very quickly.
posted by 256 at 11:29 AM on March 23, 2012


big, large
posted by Melismata at 11:30 AM on March 23, 2012


Depends on what you mean by "mean" and "exact".
posted by phrontist at 11:30 AM on March 23, 2012 [22 favorites]


twelve = dozen

Twelve is how many things there are in a dozen. One does not purchase a twelve of eggs.
posted by griphus at 11:32 AM on March 23, 2012 [20 favorites]


There are scientific names for things that also have common names, but whether you'd consider the scientific names to be English is questionable.

I think that's where you'll most likely find it, though -- names for things like starfruit, which is also called carambola.

Or regional variations like pop = soda = soda pop, or backpack = knapsack = packsack.

When you get into words that describe more nebulous things -- concepts, emotions, etc, -- we tend to attach shades of meaning to each of them and use them in different contexts, even if there isn't a strong difference.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:33 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


No, not really. Words, by virtue of being different, start to slide around and take on different meanings.

twelve = dozen

The latter is used more loosely: "He has dozens of friends!" has no equivalent with "twelve"
posted by vacapinta at 11:34 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not convinced there's any difference between "right" and "correct," for example (though each has multiple meanings).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:34 AM on March 23, 2012


"Groundhog" and "woodchuck."
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:35 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Flammable and inflammable, perhaps?
posted by ayerarcturus at 11:36 AM on March 23, 2012 [20 favorites]


I'm not convinced there's any difference between "right" and "correct," for example (though each has multiple meanings).

"Its important to know the right people."?
posted by vacapinta at 11:36 AM on March 23, 2012


"a" and "an"?
posted by Paquda at 11:36 AM on March 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


Fall & Autumn?
posted by chillmost at 11:37 AM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


I've always used couch and sofa interchangeably.
posted by insectosaurus at 11:38 AM on March 23, 2012 [8 favorites]


I'd like a dozen eggs.
(oh, his literal meaning is exactly "I'd like twelve eggs")

the function of dozen and twelve is exactly the same in this case. in other cases as noted above dozen =/ twelve.

as phrontist said, it depends on what "means" and "exact" means.
posted by 3FLryan at 11:38 AM on March 23, 2012


Because of the way English developed, it has many borrowed words from different root languages that overlap. You'll often notice these differences between words of Germanic origin which sound "rough" and words of Latin origin which sound "scientific".

For example: spit vs expectorate, dog vs canine, piss vs urinate.

A large list of Germanic and Latinate equivalents is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Germanic_and_Latinate_equivalents_in_English
posted by beautifulstuff at 11:38 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Regardless" and "irregardless," although one of those isn't a word.

Yet.
posted by griphus at 11:39 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Gasoline & Petrol?
posted by chillmost at 11:40 AM on March 23, 2012


the function of dozen and twelve is exactly the same in this case.

OP, do you consider having to add an article (twelve vs. a dozen) to still fall into 100% interchangeable? You're making the rules here.
posted by griphus at 11:40 AM on March 23, 2012


Twist and untwist?
posted by elizardbits at 11:41 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Use and Utilize?
posted by brainmouse at 11:41 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


I should say that I'm reading the question as being in X context, the words Y and Z are fully interchangeable with no difference in meaning.

As I noted in my parenthetical, words mean different things. In the context of "that's the correct answer" and "that's the right answer," there is, as far as I'm aware, no difference in meaning or connotation whatsoever.

Obviously, you can't say far-correct extremist.

OP did you mean "100% interchangeable with the same meaning" to cover all uses or just 100% identical within a particular use?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:43 AM on March 23, 2012


Ravel and unravel?
Regardless and irregardless?
posted by mosk at 11:46 AM on March 23, 2012


> Use and Utilize?

No, utilize means to use or adapt for a secondary purpose; one uses a paperclip to hold papers together, but one utilizes a paperclip to eject a balky CD from the drive.
posted by scruss at 11:46 AM on March 23, 2012 [16 favorites]


I badly want to write a long essay on this, but I'm at work, and will have to dump links instead. Long story short: this is a fraught question.

Frege's puzzle (the germ of "the linguistic turn")
Kripke's Naming and Necessity (particularly the idea of necessary a posteriori truths)
posted by phrontist at 11:46 AM on March 23, 2012


Part of the difficulty in answering this is that most words will have a number of slightly differing meanings. You can find many words that have a common meaning but their other meanings do not exactly match. As others have said, how strict do you need to be?

A few examples:
Regardless - irrespective
Simple - uncomplicated
Gather - accumulate
Gather - understand
posted by fearnothing at 11:48 AM on March 23, 2012


Regardless and irregardless?

Flamable and inflamable.
posted by bonehead at 11:48 AM on March 23, 2012


Intension
posted by phrontist at 11:49 AM on March 23, 2012


No, utilize means to use or adapt for a secondary purpose;

What? No it doesn't... it just means use. Or "to put to use", as dictionary.com says. You can always, 100% of the time, replace "utilize" with "use". Would you say it's wrong to say "use a paperclip to eject a balky CD from the drive"? Because I wouldn't... That said you can't always replace "use" with "utilize" ("Oh, what's the use!")

Oh I just looked it up on wiktionary, apparently some people in American English argue that utilize has that second meaning that you use, but I certainly have never used it that way (and I'm American) -- and that it's the other way around from what you said. You can't utilize something for its unintended purpose, but you can always use it for its intended purpose or not, which goes with what I said above about the 100% replacement in one direction but not the other.
posted by brainmouse at 11:52 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Regardless" and "irregardless," although one of those isn't a word.

Yet.

posted by cmoj at 11:53 AM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is, I imagine, a bit of a stretch, but building on the Germanic-vs.-French/Romance roots ideas upthread, it occurs to me that words often seen in tandem in a legal context might be all but interchangeable. E.g. cease and desist, aid and abet, etc.
posted by willpie at 11:53 AM on March 23, 2012


I became interested in this type of thing and usage in general after reading DFW's review of Garner's Modern American Usage and off the top of my head I remember 'disembark and disbark and debark' meaning the same thing, but they are also very similar words. There was also a great discussion about disintrested vs unintrested and how they are used to mean the same thing today but that was not always the case.

As you can tell I've made it about 40% through the D's so far, but it is such a fascinating book and topic. If you have it at your local library or can afford the $25 it is well worth your time and money. It is so informative about just such questions and very humbling as well to find out you've been using words incorrectly all along. (Also I highly recommend Wallace's review. The Super 8 vs suppurate discussion is hilarious)
posted by holdkris99 at 11:54 AM on March 23, 2012


Soda and pop.
posted by defreckled at 11:54 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Spelling, pronunciation, and morphology (the roots from which the word is composed) all have connotations. Even if the words have the same meaning in a narrow sense, the connotations will be different.

So the answer to your question is no.
posted by alms at 11:56 AM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


It seems like the only question that we can really answer here is "are there two words that have only one definition and those definitions are identical" otherwise it seems like any example that can be given may be right 95% of the time but does not always hold true because there are few words that have only one meaning. Perhaps some scientific or extremely technical terms that have no meaning outside of there field.
posted by holdkris99 at 11:58 AM on March 23, 2012


No, because a word's meaning is not simply it's referent, which is what every example above relies on. It's something like Frege's Sense and Reference - a word has a reference, but also a way of referring to that word. These are not the same between any two seeming synonyms, and many argue even between different utterances of the same word.

The closest is probably the "a" and "an" example above.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:07 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


I can think of quite a few synonyms for pee, all of which mean pee.

If anything, this seems like something that would be more likely to be true in English than in other languages, since we have so many damn words that derive from so many other languages all smooshed together.
posted by Mchelly at 12:11 PM on March 23, 2012


As I noted in my parenthetical, words mean different things. In the context of "that's the correct answer" and "that's the right answer," there is, as far as I'm aware, no difference in meaning or connotation whatsoever.

Even in this example correct is different from right in that right can be interpreted in a couple different manners where correct can't. IE: Right can be right wing in a political disscusion. "More jails and longer prision terms is the right answer". Also right can mean a direction and it can be very confusing when giving directions to use right instead of correct.
posted by Mitheral at 12:14 PM on March 23, 2012


My mom sometimes uses "stove" and "oven" interchangeably and it drives me up the wall.
posted by milk white peacock at 12:14 PM on March 23, 2012


I can think of quite a few synonyms for pee, all of which mean pee.

Yep, I can think of several slang examples. Shit/poop/defecate, for one.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:18 PM on March 23, 2012


May I suggest there might be some specific things have pairs of words for that evolved in separate places, but still mean the same specific thing:
hood / bonnet
fender / wing
tail / empennage
truck / lorry
neck / snog
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 12:18 PM on March 23, 2012


The only true synonyms in the English language are “furze” and “gorse.” — Tennyson

Furze, Gorse, of equal and abiding value
But for the speed of each word off the lips:
The warm and cornucopic cup of U
Hanging on by the very fingertips
Of the lazy Z. Furze, you would lie,
Luxurious; you would make a mattress;
You would carry yellow torches nightly,
Barbed fingers circling in slow caress.
Raise the lamps high, let us look at ourselves:
Once a tender union, now turned fierce,
Twins scratching across sands and rocky shelves.
Furze, Gorse. Which cuts worse?
The claws that grab and cling, purpling the skin,
Or the sudden spike that stabs and runs?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 12:18 PM on March 23, 2012


angry/mad
posted by kamikazegopher at 12:19 PM on March 23, 2012


In the context of "that's the correct answer" and "that's the right answer," there is, as far as I'm aware, no difference in meaning or connotation whatsoever.

I disagree. When someone uses a two-syllable word ("correct") rather than a one-syllable word ("right") they come across as more educated and perhaps even pedantic.

"Pop" and "soda" also have different connotations. As someone from Massachusetts, I heard "pop" as a regionalism with connotations of the south or midwest. It sounds foreign to me. They're synonyms, sure, but they aren't identical.
posted by alms at 12:21 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Even in this example correct is different from right in that right can be interpreted in a couple different manners where correct can't.

I know; that's why I'm limiting the context to right = correct in the sense of "right answer" = "correct answer," and acknowledging that there are other uses of each word that do not overlap. I don't think there are two words in English that have exactly the same uses in all cases (other than certain synonymous nouns, e.g., broccoli rabe = rappini).

But there are words, I think, that in the same usage are identical in the way that some synonyms are not (e.g., night != evening).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:23 PM on March 23, 2012


Further and farther. They mean the same thing; anyone telling you otherwise is trying to sell you something.
posted by Justinian at 12:25 PM on March 23, 2012


No. Why would there be two words that mean the exact same thing? That seems inefficient. There are words that are synonymous to a certain extent, but always have subtle differences in their meanings. This would be in part because words have different roots from different prior languages that have different meanings.

In logic, the term is tautology. It really has to work forwards and backwards for the words to mean the exact same thing. So for instance:

I can think of quite a few synonyms for pee, all of which mean pee.

Pee = urinate
But Pee-stain != Urinate stain

Pee = Piss
but Piss off != Pee off

Pee = Whiz
but Math Whiz != Math Pee

hood / bonnet, but a bonnet didn't carjack me.
fender / wing, but you can't fender a speech.
tail / empennage, but you can't empennage a suspicious car.
truck / lorry, but you don't have lorries on your skateboard.
neck / snog, but your head doesn't sit on a snog.
angry/mad, but he certainly wasn't the Angry Hatter.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:25 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


exact / precise?
posted by yellowbinder at 12:26 PM on March 23, 2012


no difference in meaning or connotation whatsoever.

they come across as more educated and perhaps even pedantic.


Yes, I think I over stepped saying there was no difference in connotation, and that may go to the question of what "means" means as noted above.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:26 PM on March 23, 2012


start, begin

finish, end

(all as verbs)
posted by John Cohen at 12:30 PM on March 23, 2012


what about some brandnames and products?

kleenex and tissue
chapstick and lip balm (ok, two words, but i had to keep it on my list)
xerox and photocopier
posted by anya32 at 12:35 PM on March 23, 2012


Melt and Thaw
I know thaw is not usually used when something that is solid at room temperature becomes liquid due heat exposure, but it does mean the same thing.
posted by soelo at 12:37 PM on March 23, 2012


Further and farther. They mean the same thing; anyone telling you otherwise is trying to sell you something.

Perhaps they mean the same thing when functioning as an adjective. But further can be used as a verb, while farther can not.
posted by doctord at 12:38 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


In logic, the term is tautology. It really has to work forwards and backwards for the words to mean the exact same thing. So for instance: Pee = urinate But Pee-stain != Urinate stain

Pee is both a verb and a noun, and these are distinct words. Here the equivalence is being made between the verb forms. The same point applies to your other counter-examples. E.g., "hood" as in the part of a car is a completely different word from "hood" as in a criminal, which is derived from hoodlum and has no connection to the first word except that they are homophones.

So it depends on what one means by word, exact, and mean.

So far my vote is for flammable / inflammable. The Oxford American's usage note says, "The words inflammable and flammable both have the same meaning, ‘easily set on fire.’" What's more, that's the only listed meaning for both words, so it even avoids the point raised with regard to, e.g., hood and bonnet or pee and urinate.

what about some brandnames and products?

Trademarks are technically proper adjectives. It's not Kleenex, a noun, but rather "Kleenex brand bath tissue," where Kleenex functions as an adjective. The other problem is that all Kleenex brand bath tissues are tissues, but not all tissues are Kleenex brand.

If you mean specifically genericized trademarks that have become nouns, then that's different. Aspirin and acetylsalicylic acid are a much closer case, for example.
posted by jedicus at 12:39 PM on March 23, 2012


Depending on what you mean by "word," chemistry has tons of examples. For example, piperine and "1-[5-(1,3-benzodioxol- 5-yl)-1-oxo-2,4-pentadienyl]piperidine" have the same meaning.
posted by jedicus at 12:47 PM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


So it depends on what one means by "word," "exact," and "mean." [quotation marks mine]

I agree. But then it's just regular old synonyms if two words mean the same thing is some instances. We probably need more explanation from the OP. I was going by this definition as a guide:

100% interchangeable with identical meanings

This implies tautology to me.

The word "hood" cannot be interchanged with the word "bonnet" 100% of the time.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:48 PM on March 23, 2012


couch (as a noun), sofa

bucket, pail
according to merriam-webster a bucket is: 1: a typically cylindrical vessel for catching, holding, or carrying liquids or solids 2: something resembling a bucket

pail: 1: a usually cylindrical container with a handle 2: the quantity that a pail contains

I would say that is about as indentical as you can get.
posted by inertia at 12:48 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Language is fuzzy. Words don't have exact meanings. Meaning arises from use, so all you can do is point to a couple words that are used more or less interchangeably. Could you find such a pair that are always interchangeable? You'd have to go out and observe everyone's use of language to make sure and you'd always find some small difference. The best you can do is find words that are very close in meaning.
posted by ssg at 12:49 PM on March 23, 2012


Rather hilariously: The words "loosen" and "unloosen" mean the same thing.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 12:50 PM on March 23, 2012


and by that i mean, that's about as identical as you're going to get. the secondary definitions are a bit different, you would say "the bucket of the construction truck" and not "the pail of the truck"
posted by inertia at 12:53 PM on March 23, 2012


Brace and pair, although they are typically paired with different words (and pair is also a verb).
posted by TedW at 12:56 PM on March 23, 2012


And brace can be a verb which doesn't mean the same thing as pair
posted by TedW at 12:57 PM on March 23, 2012


Thus/Therefore?
posted by Geppp at 1:08 PM on March 23, 2012


I would claim "this" and "that" mean the same thing, only the point of view of the speaker is different.
posted by tommasz at 1:09 PM on March 23, 2012


Maybe some words who have different plurals? octopuses/octopi

Or how about: inflammable/flammable
posted by ropeladder at 1:25 PM on March 23, 2012


The word "hood" cannot be interchanged with the word "bonnet" 100% of the time.

Again, you're presupposing that hood (as in the car part) and hood (as in hoodlum) are the same word. I don't think they are, but the OP will have to explain if he or she meant to distinguish between homophones. I think the issue is whether hood (as in car part) can be interchanged with bonnet (as in car part) 100% of the time with identical meanings (whatever "identical" and "meaning" mean).
posted by jedicus at 1:30 PM on March 23, 2012


It's not really about meaning, it's about impressions.

"Undress" means the exact same thing as "disrobe": somebody's clothes are coming off. When someone is disrobing the reader gets the impression the clothes in question are probably fancier, but that has no bearing on the action. I'd argue that has nothing to do with the meaning of the word, and everything to do with the atmosphere created by a writing style that would choose "disrobe" over "undress".
posted by aimedwander at 1:31 PM on March 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


The basic issue here is that there is no philosophical consensus on what constitutes the meaning of a word. This topic has been one the central and most heated debates in philosophy for the past century, though the inquiry goes back to at least Plato. So to answer your question, you'd first have to decide what you would want to mean by 'meaning.'

Once you figured that out, you'd have to decide if such a thing is the type of thing that could be transferable, not only between abstract entities like words but even across something like time (time even in the smallest sense).

My (admittedly Wittgensteinian) inclination is to say that if we consider the meaning of a word as its use - as its function within the context it being used - then two words may have similar (but only similar) uses, but their meanings are still quite different.

Most philosophers of language would probably agree that to say that, for example, pee and piss mean the same thing, because they both refer to some such physical substance, namely urine, is a much too narrow view of the meanings of words. Indeed, it is probably not philosophically possible to talk about words on such a meta-linguistic level very effectively at all. What would it be to talk about this abstract utterance 'pee?' No; you have to look at this instance where 'pee' was uttered, how 'pee' functions within a particular sociolect, a particular situation, etc. in order to get an, albeit vague, notion of its meaning. That that meaning can then be mirrored exactly onto some other utterance is pretty implausible.

A thought experiment relating to this is just to think about codes. Codes are just languages that have been agreed upon by a generally small group of people. The two of us might decide that when I say "make a pasta" you go into the next room and perform yo-yo tricks. But we would not want to say that "make a pasta" and "perform yo-yo tricks" mean the same thing.

Then again, if you don't want to talk about it philosophically, then sure, very close synonyms probably suffice.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:32 PM on March 23, 2012 [3 favorites]


Myself, I think connotation is an indivisible part of the meaning. Up thread someone pointed to "the answer is right" and "the answer is correct" as exact equivalents. "yet if I said of a solution to, say, a office politics dilemma: "that may be the correct answer, but it's not the right answer" that's a perfectly sensible thing to say, because "correct" has connotations of exactitude and rigidity, adherence to a standard (politically correct, painfully correct); right is much broader and more holistic (the right man for job, the right thing, right as rain, right on the money, might makes right, fundamental rights, the right of it, human rights). So my sentence would imply "a solution which adheres to the rules or laws but which is not fully just or adequate".

And that's because the connotations are something you always bring to your understanding of meaning. We know a word by the company it keeps. It's inevitably a slippery thing.
posted by Diablevert at 1:32 PM on March 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


Tits and boobs?
posted by rouftop at 1:34 PM on March 23, 2012


And the folks talking about connotation as being critical to meaning are also spot on. I mentioned this upthread, but this is the critical paper that began to address this issue.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:36 PM on March 23, 2012


Tits and boobs?

Two completely different kinds of birds.
posted by jabberjaw at 1:46 PM on March 23, 2012 [11 favorites]


catsup, ketchup
posted by smcameron at 2:19 PM on March 23, 2012


In high school, I looked up "morality" and "ethics" in a dictionary, hoping to learn the distinction between the two. I can't remember the definition it gave, now, but the definitions were indistinguishable, if not identical. That was frustrating, because I knew the words meant different things.
I'm still not sure of the difference.

Also, "farther" is a difference in physical distance ("I live farther from town than my Dad does"), and "further" is a difference of degree of things other than distance ("You're just trying to confuse me further").
"Farther" seems to be becoming disused, with "further" being used both ways.
Now, I just need your credit card number.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 2:36 PM on March 23, 2012


Also, "farther" is a difference in physical distance ("I live farther from town than my Dad does"), and "further" is a difference of degree of things other than distance ("You're just trying to confuse me further").

Some people claim that but I don't believe there is any actual basis for it but I believe even the OED will tell you any preference for one over the other is, historically, purely arbitrary.
posted by Justinian at 2:41 PM on March 23, 2012


Somebody / someone
Anybody / anyone
posted by datarose at 2:53 PM on March 23, 2012


I think you need the words each to have only one meaning and either only one shared connotation or usage or a completely shared set of connotations and uses.

This rules out, for example, "car" and "automobile." All automobiles are cars, but not all cars are automobiles (train cars, for example). "Bucket" and "pail" are a similar venn diagram -- all pails are buckets, but many buckets are not pails (because "bucket" is often used figuratively as a synonym for categories).

"Melt" and "thaw" fail on a different axis: both are heat-induced state changes, but "melt" is the reduction of a solid (which may or may not be solid previously) to a liquid and "thaw" is the conversion of something frozen (which is solid) to something not frozen (which may be solid or liquid).

"Attorney" and "lawyer" are a boundary case. Standing alone, they meet the test. Each means only one thing (a person admitted to practice law) and they mean it in precisely the same way. Each descends from the Norman French / Latin branch of English rather than one having a more informal Germanic root. However, "attorney" takes modification with additional words in a way that "lawyer" does not, i.e. you can have "attorney at law" (lawyer) and "attorney at fact" (person, lawyer or not, who is empowered to act for another) by way of a power of attorney; also when you connect adjectives to indicate rank or role you always do so only with "attorney" and never with "lawyer" ("supervising attorney" or "attorney general"; never "supervising lawyer" or "lawyer general").
posted by MattD at 3:36 PM on March 23, 2012


Justinian: Huh. I... I stand corrected. I'm probably still gonna use them that way, but I guess I shouldn't expect anyone else to. I must've read that in a style guide, or some wacky grammar geek website of questionable regard, instead of a dictionary.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 4:50 PM on March 23, 2012


If two words had identical meanings, there would be no need for a second word to exist. Therefore, if there are two words with identical meanings, then at some point, somewhere in their history, they did not have identical meanings, or they arrived into English from different origins and cultures and languages.

For example, "beef" and "cow." In French, they are two different words -- boeuf and vache. The Anglo-Saxons didn't make the same type of distinction. What's for dinner? Cow. Only after the Norman invasion did we English-speakers start eating roast beef sandwiches.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:01 PM on March 23, 2012


Pee = urinate
But Pee-stain != Urinate stain


Pee = urine
pee-stain = urine-stain
posted by desuetude at 6:23 PM on March 23, 2012


Cougar, puma, catamount, mountain lion.
posted by Cuke at 6:24 PM on March 23, 2012


This question has been rattling around my brain since I came across it and I eventually came up with an answer from another direction. No two words can be interchanged 100% of the time because of poetry, song lyrics and such. The sound structures (I am sure there is a linguistic term but I don't know it), meter, rhyming words, and so on would make the substitution not work. To use Faint of Butt's example, "How much wood would a groundhog chuck, if a groundhog could chuck wood" just isn't the same.
posted by TedW at 6:31 PM on March 23, 2012


"bucket" and "pail" are the only pair I know.
posted by zpousman at 7:53 PM on March 23, 2012


"bucket" and "pail" are the only pair I know.

Guess I can cross "find two words with identical meanings" off my pail list now.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:11 PM on March 23, 2012


In that context, it's only called a "bucket list," because whoever coined the phrase "kick the bucket" opted for that instead of "kick the pail," and really, either choice would've had the same effect, right?

What about yell and shout? Or does yell connote something more articulate?

And some pairs like big/large seem the same, but there's always subtle differences. Large seems to connote something slightly "more" than big.

I kind of wonder if the OP was getting at something like a case where two words were coined separately, and turned out to have the same meanings. Rather than there being an existing word, and a later word being coined to mean the same thing (to be more descriptive, say).

(But if you're gonna include slang, there's tons more slang terms for "buttocks" than one might initially think...)
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:26 PM on March 23, 2012


Heh, I had another MeFi window open, the "cab ride confessions" one, and immediately wondered if "cab" and "taxi" fit the bill. Apparently they're not only from the same word, "taxicab," but that in itself came from "taximeter cabriolet." I'd guess that the inherent relation between the two disqualifies it.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:29 PM on March 23, 2012


Actually, we refer to those accordion file holder things as buckets in my office. Also, bucket seats.

Airplanes taxi on a runway. Trucks have a cab.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:31 PM on March 23, 2012


Flammable and inflammable?
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 4:23 AM on March 24, 2012


There is a strong tendency against this phenomenon in languages. During the process of first language acquisition, children assume that there is a one-to-one correspondence between words and meanings. This allows them to use the process of elimination to acquire new words. When there are two words in a language with very similar meanings, e.g. due to one being a loan word, there is a tendency for one word to change its semantic extension (the set of cases where it applies, loosely speaking). For example, the word 'stool' in English has Saxon/Germanic roots and used to mean "chair". When this word came into competition with the latinate word 'chair', it acquired a more specific meaning and is now not interchangeable with the word 'chair'. You see this happen over and over, as languages tend toward efficiency of sound/meaning (or gesture/meaning) mappings. (I'm a linguist, although not a specialist in historical linguistics).
posted by tractorfeed at 4:20 AM on March 25, 2012


Settee and sofa. Also couch, but that has other meanings too.
posted by ComfySofa at 2:34 PM on March 25, 2012


underarm and armpit
posted by soelo at 8:39 AM on March 26, 2012


"Attorney" and "lawyer" are a boundary case. Standing alone, they meet the test.

No, not even standing alone. "Lawyer" refers to someone's occupation; "attorney" refers to how someone acts in a particular case. Thus, you can serve as your own attorney, even if you're not a lawyer (i.e. it's not your job outside of the one case). "Attorney" is also more formal. "Lawyer" is more often used pejoratively than "attorney."
posted by John Cohen at 2:24 PM on March 27, 2012


toward, towards
posted by John Cohen at 2:24 PM on March 27, 2012


"cab" and "taxi"

They are almost exact synonyms when referring to a taxicab, but "cab" has other meanings. Also, people hailing a taxi only yell "Taxi!" not "Cab!" That suggests that there is some slight difference between them.
posted by John Cohen at 4:40 PM on March 27, 2012


Yeah, I thinking in the sense that they both refer to those yellow car things in the same way, and not thinking of other contexts (and the OP never did elaborate on that).

I feel like if there were an answer, it'd be in a specialized area like science, or sports, where a lot of terms are created/developed, and used only within that context, and nowhere else.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 1:00 AM on March 28, 2012


"Attorney" and "lawyer"

Also, lawyer is oft used as a verb; attorney is not.
posted by jabberjaw at 8:59 AM on March 28, 2012


Yeah, I thinking in the sense that they both refer to those yellow car things in the same way, and not thinking of other contexts (and the OP never did elaborate on that).

Well, yelling "Taxi!" means you're hailing the yellow car. People could, but don't, yell "Cab!" to hail the exact same yellow car. So the words are used differently even in the context where they both refer to the same thing. Also, as you suggested, the OP didn't say we're only talking about one context. The OP just asked if there are 2 words that mean the exact same thing. If one word has alternate definitions that the other doesn't, you could say they aren't an example of what the OP is asking for, but the question wasn't framed very clearly.
posted by John Cohen at 6:05 AM on March 29, 2012


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