In their wonderful whiteboard series for Mental Floss , linguist Arika Okrent and illustrator Sean O’Neill verbally and visually explain why the English language has so many synonyms – words that mean exactly the same thing.
English is at base a Germanic language, part of the family including German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic. The grammar stuff, and the core vocabulary, comes out of that old Germanic base. But there’s a newer part of the vocabulary that belongs to the Romance, or Latin family. Well, newer as in only about 1000 years old. Most of it was borrowed in when the French-speaking Normans ruled England from the 11 through the 1400s. Often, we borrowed the Romance word, and kept the Germanic one too, using them in slightly different ways.