Air and breeze are termed as synonyms but they do not mean the same thing. Air is a general term while breeze would actually mean a cool flowing air.

Do we actually have exact synonyms for nouns in English?

In other languages, for example Hindi, we have 4–5 words meaning exactly the same thing; Hawa, Vayu, and Pawan all mean “air”.

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    There's no such thing as an exact synonym in English, and I honestly doubt there is one in Hindi or any other language. That's just not how (I understand) languages works. But of course, speaking only English, I can't back up that claim or gainsay you with respect to hawa, vayu, pawan, etc. But can you honestly tell me there are no contexts where, for example, your happily use vayu, but pawan simply wouldn't work? Honk about it in detail. – Dan Bron Jul 8 '17 at 11:18
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    @oerkelens I am Indian and I can tell you that hawa, pawan and vayu all mean air/wind. Hindi-Urdu is a dual language with a 'twin vocabulary' where 'hawa' comes from the Urdu side and 'vayu' and 'pavan' are words coming from Sanskrit. They can be used interchangeably to mean basically the same thing, but the colloquial term is 'hawa' and the word 'pawan' for breeze is literary/poetic. 'Vayu' usually means air rather than breeze and is often used in factual context as in 'clean air'/'fresh air' _ while pavan is translated solely as air, vayu can also mean breeze or wind _ its other way round! – English Student Jul 8 '17 at 12:28
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    @EnglishStudent I'm not surprised Google wasn't exact. However, your comment does show that the words are used in different registers and contexts, which means that they are not 100% interchangeable. In English, loo and toilet may be semantically exchangeable, but they are not in all cases 100% interchangeable due to context and register. – oerkelens Jul 8 '17 at 12:41
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    There is such a thing as an exact synonym, but it is not exactly common. Very often exact synonyms are alternative terms for very specific and clearly demarcated objects. There are quite a few species of birds or kinds of fruits and flowers that have several names in English, for example. Some of these may be dialectal (like eggplant and aubergine), but not all; furze and gorse refer to the exact same plant to most people, and the difference between the two is not based on dialect, register, etc. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 8 '17 at 12:54
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    This doesn't look like an exact duplicate of the cited question to me; that one asks if all synonyms are exact replacements (clear answer: no) whereas this one appears to be asking whether any synonyms are perfectly interchangeable (apparent answer: rarely, but yes). – 1006a Jul 9 '17 at 18:46

The late Daniel H. H. Ingalls, in his book of translation Sanskrit Poetry from Vidyākara's “Treasury”, touches on this matter in his introduction. Although he is talking about Sanskrit for English readers, I find such statements useful in telling those who know Sanskrit something about English (or at least its speakers):

Sanskrit not only has an enormous vocabulary; it has also a larger choice of synonyms than any other language I know. In a natural language there are probably no synonyms. Of course, one can go to a thesaurus and find what are called synonyms. For the English word ‘house’ one may find ‘dwelling,’ ‘residence,’ ‘tenement,’ ‘abode,’ and so on. But these are not true synonyms as one can see the moment one tries to interchange them. One cannot say of the Vanderbilts that they lived in a large tenement in Newport, Rhode Island. Each word in English has connotations that it cannot shed and that permit it to be used only in an appropriate social and emotional setting. There is even a genre of English humor, perhaps best exemplified by S. J. Perelman, which gains its effect by dropping words into a setting which cries out, so to speak, against their connotations. This form of humor was never developed beyond a rudimentary stage in Sanskrit, for while Sanskrit distinguishes, it is true, between poetic words and matter-of-fact words, it achieves within each of these categories an extraordinary degree of synonymity. The poetic words for house in Sanskrit—and Sanskrit has far more words for this object than English—differ chiefly in sound and etymology. They are not bound to a particular social or emotional situation. Thus, veśman is literally the place where one enters, sadman the place where one sits down, vastya the place where one dwells, nilaya and ālaya the place where one alights or comes to rest. These words are far more interchangeable than the English ones. Nilaya will do for the dwelling of a king or a farmer or a crow.

In the context that surrounds these words, he attributes this difference (English doesn't have true synonyms, Sanskrit has true synonyms) to the fact that Sanskrit was used in an “educated” setting and was thus not a “natural” language: he thinks that it is Sanskrit that is odd here by having true synonyms, because “natural” languages never do. (He may touch on similar matters in his Some Problems in the Translation of Sanskrit Poetry; I'll have to reread it.)

Of course, everyone likely finds their own language and culture natural, and considers deviations from that “norm” as needing explanation. My personal experience, with a different Indian language (and from a different language family) than the OP’s, is that even “natural” languages do indeed have at least occasional synonyms with no difference in meaning or social/emotional connotation.

Either way, I find it informative that (at least some) people from an Anglophone culture consider it natural for there to exist no true synonyms. I hope that answers your question!

  • I have somehow managed to post this answer after the question was closed as duplicate. Race condition in StackExchange code? – ShreevatsaR Jul 9 '17 at 18:09
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    This is a fantastic answer. Thank you for posting it! – Dan Bron Jul 10 '17 at 21:40
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    @ShreevatsaR Were you posting this from a mobile site or app? That's one way to do so, and it still remains an option. – NVZ Sep 7 '17 at 20:33

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