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I've noticed that many synonyms are often not very alike. Yes, their core meaning is the same. But there are many differences in mood or tone. Often I understand the kind of meaning it will have by the sound of it.

Here's how I interpret two synonyms 'happy' and 'glad'

  • Being happy reflects a positive attitude or nature as a general overall feeling. Just feeling the wind on my skin makes me happy. Life going on peacefully and smoothly makes me happy. Being carefree makes me happy.

  • Gladness requires more of a benefit to oneself. You're usually glad because something was done. It eases your life in some way or it simply makes you feel happy. Either ways, it was beneficial and that makes you glad.

"Skinny" and "Slender"

  • Skinny has a sharp tang. It adds to the quality of being thin sometimes a certain sexiness and sometimes (mostly in Old English) an unhealthy and unattractive connotation.

  • Slender has the same basic meaning as 'skinny', but it paints a more graceful and eloquent picture of thinness. I automatically associate slenderness with a refined sense of beauty.

I have never learnt it anywhere but still whenever I see these words being used, that is how I understand them. Why is it that way?

I know all of it looks very confusing. It does to me too. To be honest, I hardly understand what my question is myself. Hopefully, somebody will be able to sort this mess out and identify what I'm asking.

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  • Except in lah-di-dah contexts like skinny latte, the word skinny is usually only marginally less derogatory than, say, scrawny, gaunt, bony, rangy,... But we have plenty of words like lean, spare, taut when we want to be appreciative. This is just how English works. We usually have many closely-related adjectives to describe common attributes, and since "natural language hates synonyms", people will always have (shared or personal) notions about exactly why most of us would rather be called slender than skinny. – FumbleFingers Dec 23 '17 at 19:24
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    Words are rarely exact synonyms. You need to look at their etymologies, not to mention usages. You could call a child skinny, but not a sapling (although slender would work for both). – Mick Dec 23 '17 at 20:06
  • FWIW, Google claims About 454.000 results for the text string wish you a happy Christmas, but wish you a glad Christmas only gets 10 hits - and several of those are just (accidental or deliberate) "bad translations". – FumbleFingers Dec 23 '17 at 20:09
  • I'd agree with your readings here. But not with your 'I have never learnt it anywhere'. You must have encountered these words somewhere (unlike say [till now] 'acnestis') (I'm guessing) as you use them here. So you will have been influenced by the contexts in which you met them, even though you don't remember the occasions involved. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '17 at 20:21
  • Returning after quite a while (the post has been put near the top of the queue), I realise that the 'all words are infinitely polysemous' (ie have a continuum of nuances) quote hasn't been mentioned. Different people will have different perceptions of each word (person / painting / curry ...), based upon previous encounters. But also upon individual 'tastes'. A dictionary obviously can't capture all these shades of meaning. Some connotations are perceivable to most anglophones, while whispier ones will be picked up by far fewer. There's (probably a large) degree of subjectiveness involved. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 at 13:59
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Ordo Ab Chao

A Place to Start

English has many, many words that appear synonymous and are not real synonymous at all. One could say there is a base word or basic word (an anchor word for the set of words, [idea taken from the book cited below]) and then a series of quasi-synonyms** for many everyday words. Though some words mean the same thing in their Latin or Germanic variants (the verb to arrive can also be to get [here, there], for example, others have greater semantic specificity or uniqueness.

A very good example is the word shine: Here is a list of "synonyms": glimmer, glint, glitter, shimmer, sparkle, twinkle, flicker, wink, glisten, flash;

Lights can be described with any one of those (and of course other words as well). But each brings a particular flavor to the table. What is the difference? Well, a native speaker will be able to say straight away what the basic difference in meaning is, whether they can articulate it well or not. But each word has its specific meaning: twinkling lights are not shimmering lights. twinkling suggests and on/off type of thing, whereas shimmering suggests an extra layer of light hovering over a surface.

These semantic differences are absorbed by speakers through hearing them or reading them. Over time, their difference become apparent. I daresay, also, that education plays a role here. The more you read, the more you will absorb this "stuff" which, in the end, translates out to small semantic differences.

Unfortunately, I only have my own head as reference and, therefore, this is an opinion. But readings in teaching vocabulary such as this book will probably go a long way to clarifying this issue for you. But to answer the question: Are these meanings instinctive? No, these meanings are absorbed by the mind as one progresses through reading (different books, etc.) or hearing them spoken. Many are part of one's passive vocabulary and are not usually spoken aloud.

  • It was established on ELU long ago that the only useful meaning of 'synonyms' is 'two or more words which are interchangeable for certain senses with no or insignificant change in meaning'. There are vanishingly few 'true synonyms'. I've even discovered recently that a Chilean 'Syrah' and a Chilean 'Shiraz' are likely to be distinguishable, even though the words are usually regarded as spelling variants. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '17 at 20:40
  • @EdwinAshworth I can't be expected to know everything established on ELU long ago, with all due respect. In any event, one needs a way into a subject sometimes, and what I said doesn't really go against that. Proper names are another kettle of mulled wine, altogether, aren't they? But I doubt that car and automobile are not semantically equivalent. Their is a usage and style difference, though. Another kettle...of fish, actually. :) Cheers. – Lambie Dec 23 '17 at 20:47
  • You could look up 'synonym' and 'true synonym' before addressing a question about synonyms. [Do any English synonyms have exactly the same meaning?] turns up in the first 20 hits for the latter, leading to [Do synonyms have exactly the same meanings as each other in all contexts? 7 answers]. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '17 at 20:53
  • @Edwin Ashworth You know what? It's not the greatest day for being so mean. The young lady needed a hand up, which I have given. If it doesn't please you, delete it. Be my guest. I believe I did address the issue, which wasn't really a formal question about synonyms and true synonyms and would not answer her question in the least....in fact, not at all. – Lambie Dec 23 '17 at 20:58
  • You know what? It's always a great day for upholding standards and accuracy, and for using a wheelbarrow instead of reinventing it. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 23 '17 at 21:02

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