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A Guide to Dictionaries of Latin Synonyms – How to Tell the Difference

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Has this ever hap­pened to you? You’re hap­pi­ly read­ing a Latin text when you come across a word you’re not sure about.

You open the dic­tio­nary, look up the word, learn the def­i­n­i­tion, go back to reading.

A lit­tle fur­ther down you stum­ble on anoth­er word. Same thing. Look up the word, learn the… and con­fu­sion sets in. The two words have basi­cal­ly the same definition.

“What’s the dif­fer­ence?” “Is there a difference?”

After read­ing this arti­cle you’ll know how to solve these age-old questions.

Down­load the dictionaries Get the PDFs of all dic­tio­nar­ies of syn­onyms dis­cussed in this article. 

Introduction

Do Nuances of Meaning Matter in Latin?

Through the years, I have spent many a night pon­der­ing the dif­fer­ence in mean­ing between so-called syn­onyms, in order to bet­ter under­stand the nuances of the text. I have learned an immense amount from dic­tio­nar­ies of Latin syn­onyms through the years. This recent­ly became an indis­pens­able tool as we were writ­ing our new book Pugio Bru­ti: A Crime Sto­ry in Easy Latin: Since lim­it­ing the vocab­u­lary was para­mount, I had to find Latin words that would work in a wide vari­ety of con­texts, while still being clas­si­cal­ly attest­ed in that par­tic­u­lar con­text. But for learn­ers, and read­ers are such dic­tio­nar­ies necessary?

Frankly, while read­ing a text, you can often do with­out know­ing the pre­cise nuance a word car­ries; a gen­er­al notion will often suf­fice to pull you through to the author’s next thought. 

But if you desire to deep­en your knowl­edge of Latin, and peer through the seams of syn­onyms, or to drape your own thoughts with just the right words, you need to study the dif­fer­ences in meaning.

This can be a chal­lenge but for­tu­nate­ly there is help…

Where to Start?

Schol­ars have been writ­ing on Latin syn­onyms and their dif­fer­ences from antiq­ui­ty (e.g. Var­ro, and lat­er Isidore of Seville) to today.

In the 19th cen­tu­ry the genre flour­ished with a host of authors pen­ning dic­tio­nar­ies of Latin syn­onyms but, sine cura sis, I won’t list them all.

Here I will rather focus on par­tic­u­lar­ly use­ful ones that I use in my own read­ing and research. 

They date from the 18th to the 20th centuries. 

I will present the most exhaus­tive ones first, more suit­able for advanced stud­ies, and then move on to more acces­si­ble works.

Luck­i­ly, all these dic­tio­nar­ies of Latin syn­onyms are avail­able as PDFs, to which I have added  down­load links.

Comprehensive Latin synonym Works

Let’s first look at the two prin­ci­pal works, one French and one German.

Gardin Dumesnil

First out is J.B. Gardin Dumes­nil’s, Syn­onymes Latins et leurs sig­ni­fi­ca­tions, first pub­lished in 1777, but revised and trans­lat­ed sev­er­al times.

This is a com­pre­hen­sive work, con­tain­ing 7000 groups of syn­onyms. The descrip­tions giv­en are brief with exam­ples from Latin authors. There are few, if any, dis­cus­sions on the dis­tinc­tions made.

For that we need to turn to the next work on our list.


Down­load the PDFs here:

Döderlein

The most com­pre­hen­sive work on Latin syn­onyms by far is Lud­wig Döderlein’s mon­u­men­tal Lateinis­che Syn­onyme und Ety­molo­gieen (1826–1838). 

In six vol­umes he unveils the dif­fer­ences between words, giv­ing deeply detailed descrip­tions while pro­vid­ing his rea­son­ing and argu­ments for estab­lish­ing them. 

Some­times there is a hint of absur­da dili­gen­tia which is always amusing. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it is only avail­able in Ger­man. (Be the first to learn Ger­man through a dic­tio­nary of Latin synonyms?)

Down­load the PDFs of Döder­lein’s 6‑volume work here:

Shorter & Abridged Works: Quick fix?

Some­times your Ger­man fails you, or you just don’t need all the 7000 words from Dumes­nil. If so, there are sev­er­al short­er works. 

Ramshorn

Lud­wig Ramshorn, the Ger­man trans­la­tor of Dumesnil’s work, also pub­lished an abridged ver­sion of the dic­tio­nary for schools.

The descrip­tions are short with­out any dis­cus­sions or argu­ments for his def­i­n­i­tions, mak­ing it more acces­si­ble and suit­able for a quick look. 

Its Eng­lish trans­la­tion also con­tains a sec­tion on morphology. 

Down­load the PDF here:

There is a dig­i­tal com­put­er ver­sion avail­able here:


Döderlein No. 2

Döder­lein – whose hand penned six vol­umes on Latin syn­onyms – seems to have realised that read­ers want­ed a more stream­lined work, some light read­ing, if you will, so he pub­lished an abridged version. 

It keeps the var­i­ous dis­tinc­tions while dis­pens­ing with the rea­son­ing and argu­men­ta­tion behind them.

The abridged work has the added ben­e­fit of being avail­able in sev­er­al lan­guages (Eng­lish, French and German).

Down­load PDFs of the work here:

Down­load a com­put­er ver­sion here:


Douthat

In brevi­ty and clar­i­ty Robert Douthat’s Latin syn­onymes defined from two stand­points takes the first prize.

To delin­eate the dif­fer­ences, he moves from the gener­ic to the spe­cif­ic: start­ing by defin­ing the sim­ple verb (e.g. “habere”) he moves on to com­pounds (e.g. “exhibeo”).

This dis­po­si­tion makes it dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from the oth­er dic­tio­nar­ies but quite interesting. 

Down­load the PDF here: 

Latin Only Synonym Works 

Thus far we’ve talked about ver­nac­u­lar dic­tio­nar­ies of Latin syn­onyms. Now it’s time to move on to one whol­ly in Latin.

Popma

Auso­nius Popma’s dic­tio­nary of Latin syn­onyms De dif­fer­en­ti­is ver­bo­rum (Turin 1852) gives detailed yet suc­cinct expla­na­tions of the dif­fer­ences in mean­ing, all in Latin.

In com­pre­hen­sive­ness it com­pares to Ramshorn’s abridged ver­sion of Dumesnil.

Popma’s strength is that it’s writ­ten entire­ly in Latin, keep­ing you think­ing in Latin: While look­ing up a word you’re build­ing your knowl­edge of syn­onyms as well as acquir­ing the vocab­u­lary nec­es­sary to dis­cuss dif­fer­ences of mean­ing in Latin.

A price­less skill.

Down­load the pdf here: 


Latin Dictionary + Synonyms

Wagner

Wagner’s Lex­i­con Lat­inum is some­thing in between a reg­u­lar Latin dic­tio­nary and a dic­tio­nary of Latin synonyms.

When you look up a word you get the ver­nac­u­lar def­i­n­i­tion (Ger­man, French, Ital­ian, Eng­lish – depend­ing on the edi­tion) as well as sev­er­al syn­onyms, but with­out expla­na­tions as to the dif­fer­ent shades of meaning.

With each def­i­n­i­tion you also get an exam­ple of its use.

This com­pact and use­ful work pro­vides an overview of the word and its syn­onyms with­out dis­cussing their differences.

Down­load the PDF:  

Wagner’s Lex­i­con Lat­inum is also avail­able as a search­able dig­i­tal resource here.


Synonym Works for Writing in Latin

Ogilvie

Last but not least is Prof. Robert Ogilvie’s Horae Lati­nae; its aim and struc­ture is quite dif­fer­ent from oth­er works on Latin synonyms:

Writ­ten for com­pos­ing Latin prose, it gives the Latin equiv­a­lents of about 500 Eng­lish expressions.

It lists the Eng­lish words or expres­sions with descrip­tions of the var­i­ous ways in which they are to be ren­dered into Latin.

The def­i­n­i­tions are accom­pa­nied by many exam­ples tak­en from clas­si­cal works. 

Use dig­i­tal ver­sion of this dic­tio­nary here. 


Do you Believe in Synonyms? A warning

A note of warning.

Dumes­nil, Döder­lein, Pop­ma and the rest have some­times cut too fine lines between syn­onyms, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing shades of mean­ing that clas­si­cal authors do not always observe (o audaciam!).

The dif­fer­ence between words doesn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly lie in mean­ing but in reg­is­ter, style, genre, author or time period.

So look to these works for guid­ance rather than rev­e­la­tions of hid­den truths. Com­pare their def­i­n­i­tions with your own view. They do not sup­plant read­ing wide­ly and acquir­ing an intu­itive feel­ing for Latin. 

Overview: Which Synonym Dictionary is Best?

We’ve looked at the major works and it’s time to take the next step: using them.

Which one? you may ask. It depends on your sit­u­a­tion and need. They all have their strengths. If pressed, I would sug­gest using a cou­ple in conjunction.

Overview of Dictionaries of Latin Synonyms

Reg­u­lar dic­tio­nary with synonyms:

  • Wag­n­er, F., Lex­i­con Lat­inum seu uni­ver­sae phrase­olo­giae cor­pus con­ges­tum (Bruges, 1878).

English–Latin: great for writ­ing Latin:

  • Ogilvie, R., Horae Lati­nae (Lon­don, 1901).

Short­er dic­tio­nar­ies for quick answers:

  • Douthay, R., Latin syn­onymes defined from two stand­points (1907)
  • Döder­lein, L, Hand­book of Latin Syn­onymes, (Andover 1859)
  • Ramshorn, L., Dic­tio­nary of Latin Syn­onymes (Boston 1841)

All in Latin – For stay­ing in Latin: 

  • Pop­ma, A., De dif­fer­en­ti­is ver­bo­rum (Turin 1852)

Wide selec­tion of words and brief explanations:

  • Dumes­nil, Syn­onymes latins et leurs dif­férentes sig­ni­fi­ca­tions (Paris 1853)

The most exhaus­tive with detailed discussions: 

  • Lateinis­che Syn­onyme und Ety­molo­gieen (1826–1838).

Ready to Start Learning about word nuances?

Unrav­el­ing the the web of dif­fer­ences can be a hair-pulling, frus­trat­ing endeavour. 

It’s tempt­ing to write off two syn­ony­mous words as iden­ti­cal in mean­ing. Don’t.

The next time you ask your­self “what’s the dif­fer­ence between…?” I’m sure you’ll go the extra mille pas­su­um and take out your Dumes­nil, Döder­lein or Popma.

You’ll dis­cov­er the dif­fer­ences that ulti­mate­ly bring you clos­er to the text, to under­stand­ing it as the author (may have) intended.

Download All Dictionaries

If you want to down­load all the dic­tio­nar­ies in one go, I’ve put togeth­er a zip-file. Click below to get it.

Down­load the dictionaries Get the PDFs of all dic­tio­nar­ies of syn­onyms dis­cussed in this article. 
Daniel Pettersson

Daniel Pettersson

Teacher and author Daniel Pettersson, M.A., is co-founder of Latinitium and is currently teaching Latin at Stockholm University, where he is also working on his Ph.D. dissertation on Humanist Colloquia. Daniel believes in the importance of Latin literature in the modern world and that you can teach yourself Latin with the right motivation, method, and material.
Written by Daniel Pettersson

Written by Daniel Pettersson

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