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Are there two words that in the same grammatical form have the same set of meanings? In meanings here context of use and necessary construction about the word are included.

For example, if one word is used by children and other by scientists, they are not really absolute synonyms.

If one verb is used as is and the other needs a preposition, they do not fit, either.

If one word has only a verb meaning and the other has a noun meaning, too, that is not a problem.

Edit:

An answer is found, but I'll upvote any further relevant answer.

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  • to qualify do the words have to be ones that all (or few or some?) native English speakers use as absolute synonyms?
    – virmaior
    Jan 29 '14 at 9:26
  • Sum/Total for example? Homogeneous/Uniform
    – mplungjan
    Jan 29 '14 at 9:26
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    identical/same?
    – virmaior
    Jan 29 '14 at 9:30
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    @tobyink Hound is a subdivision of hunting dogs. Poodle is not hound.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 9:59
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    @mplungjan in "Total war" the word total has absolute different meaning, that the word "sum" hasn't
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:03
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In most cases even the closest synonyms will still have some slight differences in usage. Truly absolute synonyms can exist, I think, in some narrow fields. I recall stumbling upon an example somewhere - the word "gorse":

(Plants) any evergreen shrub of the leguminous genus Ulex, esp the European species U. europeaus, which has yellow flowers and thick green spines instead of leaves. Also called: furze or whin

We see that this plant has several names, and I doubt that there are any subtle differences between these names. So in this example in the field of botany we meet (presumably) absolute synonyms.

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  • It seems, that it works! "Furz see gorse" in Free Dictionary
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:29
  • By the way, the only pair of words that COULD be really absolute synonyms in Russian, is in biology, too.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:35
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    Except that the people who call it furze don't call it gorse, and might not so much as know the latter. And vice versa. If that is not a huge difference, then nothing is. The way the human brain works is that the same word can map to many things, but the same thing can't map to many words — there will always be some difference in usage, dialect, register, you name it. There has been extensive linguistic research that shows that. A nice introduction for a general audience can be found e.g. in Pinker's The Language Instinct.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 29 '14 at 22:05
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    I agree with RegDwight. If you are excluding usage in a children's book vs usage by scientists, you might as well exclude gorse/furze/whin. I was surrounded by the first for many years - alas, I knew it well! - but had never heard of the other two until now. I think usage depends on geographical location/dialect, and thus does not meet the criterion of wholly interchangeable usage.
    – nxx
    Jan 29 '14 at 23:05
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As you reject any word pairs in which one or both words also have a meaning that is different from the other word, I doubt you will find any examples.

As given in the comments, sum and total as verbs meaning to add up the separate values are synonyms, but they are probably normally used in different contexts - and you seem to reject them on that basis.

Likewise, most (if not all) synonym pairs that will be proposed will contain words that can or will be more appropriate in some situations than the other word in the pair, and sometimes one or both will also have different meanings altogether.

If there were any such pairs as you are looking for, I suspect one word will supersede the other: one will become less common, possibly obsolete since there is little use in having two words without any meaningful difference (compare three times and thrice. I only hear thrice used on a regular basis in Indian English.)

It is also possible that one of the words changes meaning to use both words in a meaningful way in the language.

Think of what happened to "boeuf" being introduced in English, being originally the exact French synonym for "cow". It was used in English (as "beef") to mean exclusively "the meat of the cow".

Maybe "for example" and "e.g." fit your definitions, although they are not single words but fixed expressions representing an idea. Actually, "e.g." is usually pronounced as "for example".

Edit:

Thank you Vilmar for pointing me at botany! Yes, in the names of plants we do find absolute synonyms, and not only in obscure areas...

Eggplant an aubergine are exactly the same vegetable (and the name brinjol or brinjal is used in Indian English). Similarly, there are spices with several names (curcuma, yellowroot and turmeric are all the same).

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  • Squash/Zucchini
    – mplungjan
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:51
  • I would say that sum and total have a slightly different meaning. Sum impiles that it is the result of an addition, total does not imply that.
    – Oldcat
    Jan 29 '14 at 18:22
  • @mplungjan I had no idea that's what a squash was. I knew it as courgette/zucchini.
    – nxx
    Jan 29 '14 at 22:58
  • In AmE, squash is a family of plants, of which zucchini is one member alongside pumpkin, gourds, kabocha, calabaza, and so on. But I raise the same objection as RegDwight in Vilmar's answer; dialectical differences shouldn't count by the OP's criteria. If they do, then see separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.com/2008/08/… .
    – choster
    Jan 29 '14 at 23:37
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I don't think there is. At least not if you consider poetry or, let's say, the poetic value of words. See, even if two words are synonyms, they cannot replace each other in a poem (since a poem will not only rely on their meaning, but also their sound, cf. stylistic devices). Hence, a pair of absolute synonyms would need to also sound the same, at which point you're merely talking about a spelling difference.

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  • We can't use poetry interchangeability as a valid criterium - because there not only meaning, but the very sounding is important. And sometimes even the writing. The question was on meanings only.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 9:55
  • But if both words or one of them can be used in poetry as such, IS important.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 9:56
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    It's only more noticeable in poetry, hence my mention of the 'poetic value'. Even in prosaic utterance, there are often circumstances in which sound (or even visual appearance of the written word) matter.
    – 949
    Jan 29 '14 at 9:59
  • Yes, but i am NOT talking about interchangeability, but only on equivalence of meanings.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:01
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    Well you stated "context of use and necessary construction about the word" should be considered. If, say, an assonance does not work for one of the words, then that results in a different meaning: Think of a politician phrasing something very important in a catch-phrase. The catch-phrase has to stand out of the politician's speech by virtue of not only its meaning but also its sounding. It has to be easily memorable. If that fails for one of the synonyms, the whole speech will take on a different meaning.
    – 949
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:25
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You won't get anywhere with common words, as they always have slight emotional differences. You won't get anywhere with words of significantly different root because along with the root comes different origin and different regional adaptation level, one being more common than other.

I guess the only domain where you can find absolute synonyms is slight spelling alterations where both spellings are acceptable but the word itself uncommon enough that neither spelling could be deemed dominant.

My suggestion would be a possum and an opossum. Ngram of the two has them within error margin away from each other frequency-wise, the spelling is different enough that it grants a different article for each, and you'd have to try really hard to find differences in formality, emotional load or regional acceptance between the two.

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  • Yes, I am sure that only rare words could win. But about possum/opossum, as far as I remember, they different in their areas of habitation - ones are from North, others from South America, at least, according to Durrel's "Three tickets to Adventure"
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:25
  • I thought also on verbs that could differ in s/z. But even capsulise/capsulize have different meaning!
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:26
  • @Gangnus: Are you sure?
    – SF.
    Jan 29 '14 at 14:02
  • Free dictionary IS sure. And who am I to argue with it. (on capsulise/ze, I mean)
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 14:06
  • As for (o)possum, I am sure, but I'll try to find the book and check.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 14:09
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Linguistically, absolute synonyms are only those words which come from distinct language registers, such as literary vs. dialectal language, but refer to the same reality.

My favourite example is that of the girl / lass synonymity, which is a clear illustration of this phenomenon. (Of course, lass can also mean a maid servant, but this is already a specialized meaning of the word, which it got only later on.)

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  • Girl is a common word, and lass is a poetry word, as far as I know. Maybe, native English speakers will correct me?
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:22
  • @Gangnus In northern and north midland dialects, lass means girl. Jan 29 '14 at 10:25
  • 'Of course, lass can also mean a maid servant' means that the two are not always interchangeable. Jun 13 '15 at 10:03
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I think flammable and inflammable may fit these criteria.

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  • I almost thought, that you won, but only inflammable has the meaning: "Quickly or easily aroused to strong emotion; excitable." Is it correct?
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:33
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I'm going to go with "dog" and "hound", used as a noun. I think in most reasonable circumstances, you could switch them without anyone complaining.

Of course, there are always exceptions. A "learn the alphabet" book couldn't get away with "D is for Hound".

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    I think a poodle would be greatly honoured to be called a hound :)
    – mplungjan
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:05
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hound Hound is a sort of hunting dog. You could propose also "dog" and "pup". One is subset of the other.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 10:05
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    en.wiktionary.org/wiki/hound - "A dog, particularly a breed with a good sense of smell developed for hunting other animals". Note particularly, but not exclusively. Any dog may be called a hound, though certain breeds are more commonly called hounds than others. "Pup" refers exclusively to younger dogs.
    – tobyink
    Jan 29 '14 at 12:36
  • 'Most reasonable circumstances' avoids the question. 'You want ketchup on that hound?' 'A Basset dog.' 'A hound fox.' 'You ain't nuthin' but a hound hound.' 'A hound biscuit. 'The Dog of the Baskervilles' (today's Sherlock wouldn't even have taken the case). Jun 13 '15 at 9:55
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Actually there are no synonyms. If there are two or three words that are commonly referred to as synonyms they have all the same a totally different word history, and the usage of the one or the other may be restricted to variants of English as American/British/Australian/Indian English or to certain regions of a country such as Great Britain or the USA or the use may belong to the speech of an older generation or they are of different kinds of language level as colloquial, elevated style, academic, literary, poetic, archaic and so on.

For learners, I would say, it is important to know what is the common variant and what are frequent variants of the normal one. Schools tend to exaggerate the importance of synonyms and the effect is they establish cross-references in the mind that only disturb speaking or writing. You constantly think about the problem which word to use. If you know the sentence type - Hardly had she done A when B happened (A or B stand for an action/event whatever you like) that is actually enough. But when you learn five synomyns for "hardly" at school then you stop your speaking or writing and begin to think about which word to use. When you know the main variant with "hardly" and later find a variant in literature then you put is in you mind as a mere variant, but you still use the sentence type with "hardly". That, at least, is the way I do it.

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  • Yes, but it is simply interesting.
    – Gangnus
    Jan 29 '14 at 11:47
  • I forget who suggested 'recondite' and 'abstruse' in another thread, but they're unusual enough not to collocate much, and I haven't found a counterexample. In chemistry, terms like hendecanol and undecanol, or isohendecanol and 10-methyldecanol would be strong if trivial candidates. Jun 13 '15 at 10:16

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