"Robespierre is synonymous with the Great Terror in the French Revolution".

As far as I know, when things/words are synonymous with one another it's because they have a similar meaning.

However, I've heard statements similar to the above many, many times. Is this an alternative and correct way of using 'synonymous'. If so, under what grammaticality is it correct?

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    The vocabulary of a (living) language changes over time – some words (or meanings / shades of meaning) disappear and new words, and meanings for existing words, are brought into more-or-less general use. One type of change is called narrowing: a word becomes more specialised in meaning: eg in OE, mete referred to any kind of food. Another type of change is called shift: a word’s usage moves from application in one set of circumstances to another: eg navigators used to be found only in ships. Here, 'having the same meaning' has been extended to allow 'having the same associations etc'. – Edwin Ashworth Jan 8 '13 at 23:18
  • Yes, this is a grammatically and semantically correct usage. When someone says "Robespierre", those of us who know even only a little bit about the French Revolution usually think of the terror and the beheadings. "Under what grammaticality is it correct?" is not a meaningful question. – user21497 Jan 8 '13 at 23:19
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    It is a figurative, not literal, usage, namely metonymy. – Mitch Jan 9 '13 at 0:49

Not only do the various dictionaries have entries like this:

synonymous adj
2. Equivalent in connotation: "a widespread impression that . . . Hollywood was synonymous with immorality" (Doris Kearns Goodwin).

But you can see that renowned writers like the one cited above (she wrote, among other things, A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, on which the recent film about Lincoln was based) use it in this figurative way all the time.

I don't know why people want to shackle language with the fetters of abject denotation. Figures of speech are what make language interesting, rich, and broad. A pox on pedantry, I say!

  • +1. This usage of the word synonymous is hardly synonymous with word butchering. NOAD lists it this way, among its definitions of the word: closely associated with or suggestive of something. – J.R. Jan 9 '13 at 2:30
  • +1. pedants, of which I am definitely one, should always be open to a usage which passes from hyperbole to commonplace. – james Mar 3 '19 at 20:24

The use is fine. Check out definition 2 here http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synonymous

: having the same connotations, implications, or reference


Like you I find the usage uncomfortable, but as others have noted it has become acceptable.

As an unreconstructed pedant, I will continue to insist upon "The name, Robespierre, is synonymous with the Great Terror ...". It is the label rather than the person that prompts the associations, connotations and implications.

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