À Propos: Synonyms in French

ata-fld-newsletter-logo French is a language that makes liberal use of synonyms. Et pour cause. Synonyms add variety to writing.

But the French don’t seem to be content with simply using the occasional word having the same (or nearly the same) meaning as another in the language. They use these “lexical stand-ins” at every possible turn.

More accurately, many of these lexical substitutes are metonyms. A metonym is a figure of speech in which a person or thing is called by another name rather than its own. (Think about how many times you’ve seen l’Elysée used to refer to the French government.)

Consider a recent article I read about a French soccer player. In the span of 79 words, the writer referred to Charles N’Zogbia as Charles N’Zogbia, le gaucher, and l’ancien Havrais. (He used to play for Le Havre AC.)

In fact, instead of using only [player’s name] and a pronoun [il, elle] for variety, French writers invariably name the player by other means. These include the use of demonyms (le Francilien, la Bulgare) as well as position or ranking (l’ailier, la 2e mondiale).

Of course, we see this in English sports journalism, too—“the power forward,” “the LSU alum”—but my suspicion is that it’s a writing technique not used to the same degree as in French.

Politics is another realm in which synonyms are widely used. As you would expect, you see titles and positions used (both to provide information and to avoid the repetition of the person’s name), as in président le la CMP and le député du Nord. But you also see sentences like the following:

Aucune majorité n’étant dégagée sur ce point, l’élu a jugé vain de poursuivre plus avant la séance.

Can you think of a single English article in which you’ve seen the term “the elected [one]” used to refer to a politician?

Synonyms abound in financial writing—especially, it seems, in articles about the stock market. Take the English word “increase,” for example. You might see it used in an article about a stock index of a particular country. Read a French article about the same topic and you’re likely to see not only augmenter, but s’élever, en hausse, monter en flèche, prendre son essor, and perhaps s’intensifier, s’amplifier, se développer, and se multiplier.

Mais le comble ? In an article in Science & Vie magazine by French science writer Lise Barnéoud titled “Vers la fin des grands arbres,” les grands arbres are referred to in almost twenty different ways: as doyens de la nature, maîtres de l’espace et du temps, rois des forêts, and titans ligneux, to name a few. (You can read my post “18 Ways to Say ‘Large Trees’ in French” for the other phrasal synonyms that she uses.)

Unfortunately, I don’t have any data on “synonym density” between French and English. (Corpus linguists, consider that an idea for your next academic paper!) But I suspect that the French use synonyms, metonyms, and other lexical stand-ins more frequently than Americans.

Matthew Kushinka

Matthew Kushinka is a French-to-English translator and the owner of RedLine Language Services LLC, a company that offers translation, copyediting, and formatting services to commercial clients

If you have comments or links to other articles about this topic, please write me at matthew@redlinels.com. I’d love to see some numbers on the subject.