By Dr Oliver Tearle
The adjective generous has two chief meanings or definitions, which are related but which need to be distinguished. The first sense of ‘generous’ refers to how kind, hospitable, or charitable somebody is; the second sense relates to how abundant or plenteous something is (for instance, having a generous helping of syrup on one’s pancakes in the morning, or a feast being described as a generous repast).
In this article, we’ll introduce some of the best synonyms for both of these senses of ‘generous’, and conclude with a few of the commonest antonyms. We’ll also say a little bit about the origins of some of these words and how the synonyms can be subtly distinguished from each other.
Synonyms for the word ‘generous’
Perhaps the commonest synonym for ‘generous’ is KIND. Kindness is always a positive trait, and is closely tied up with the notion of generosity. Kind is from the German gikunt meaning ‘nature’; we might draw a parallel with the etymology of generous itself, which is related to the Latin genus meaning ‘stock’ or ‘race’ from which one is descended. (Indeed, generous is related to gentle, which as well as meaning tender or, if you will, kind, also related to someone who is high-born or of good breeding, hence gentleman.)
Indeed, it is these two related meanings of kind which Hamlet puns upon in the very first line of dialogue he speaks in Shakespeare’s play: ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’ He utters this line, possibly under his breath, in response to his uncle’s over-familiar greeting: he doesn’t like being of the same kind or family as his uncle, and doesn’t take kindly to being reminded of their blood-kinship.
Someone who is kind to others and generous with their money (in particular) might be described as CHARITABLE, a word whose origins are connected to the idea of love, especially Christian love for one’s fellow citizens. Being charitable is being generous towards others and seeking to help them.
The pair of words BENEFICENT and BENEVOLENT are also good alternative words for ‘generous’, both being related to the Latin bene meaning ‘well’ (nota bene, often shortened to ‘N. B.’, means ‘note well’). What’s the difference between the two? They are largely synonymous, but beneficent tends to mean ‘doing good deeds’ (with the emphasis on actions) while benevolent means ‘wishing well’ (not that kind) or ‘willing well’, suggesting that a person wishes to bring about positive change, but the will may be stronger than the actions here. (The -volent part is related to the word volition, meaning ‘will’ or, if you will, motivation.)
A more formal and, I suppose, grand way of saying much the same thing is to describe someone as being PHILANTHROPIC: this means someone who literally loves their fellow man, from the ancient Greek philos, ‘love’ and anthropos, ‘man’ or ‘human being’. Someone who is philanthropic is humane and well-disposed towards their fellow humans.
Of course, if you’re generous, you’ll often put others’ needs ahead of your own, and there’s a specific word for this kind of generosity: altruism. And so someone who practises altruism is ALTRUISTIC, from the Latin alter meaning ‘other’, because an altruistic person puts others ahead of themselves. Altruism is a relatively recent word, entering the English language in the mid-nineteenth century (one of the early instances of it is from G. H. Lewes, the common-law husband of the novelist George Eliot, in 1853), but the word was borrowed from the French: as a concept it was developed by the Positivist philosopher Auguste Comte.
If you’re altruistic you’re also SELFLESS: putting others ahead of yourself and not being concerned with personal gain.
Generosity is often about sharing the wealth, or, if you like, the bounty. This word is from the Latin for goodness, and being BOUNTIFUL or BOUNTEOUS means being full of goodness towards others. Another word, closely related to these two, is MUNIFICENT, from the Latin for ‘gift’, and denoting someone who is LIBERAL with their gifts, or very generous. The same goes for UNSTINTING: a word to describe people who have a lot and give a lot to others.
If you are talking about the other sense of generous, as in a generous helping of something, useful terms include LAVISH, PLENTIFUL, and ABUNDANT.
Of course, gifts or money aren’t the only things you can be generous with. And sometimes you might want to salute someone for having a generous and benevolent attitude. The word MAGNANIMOUS is perfect for this: a magnanimous person is noble and generous in their feelings and behaviour towards others.
If all of these synonyms for ‘generous’ are too grandiose, you could always go with the metaphorical compound adjective BIG-HEARTED, denoting someone who is kind and generous towards other people.
And if someone is a generous host and treats their guests in a kind manner, they can be described as HOSPITABLE.
Antonyms for the word ‘generous’
By contrast, someone who is the opposite of generous might be described as MEAN, STINGY, or SELFISH – the antonym of selfless, of course, and neatly pointing up the fact that generosity involves putting others ahead of oneself, or at the very least, giving other people the same regard as we pay ourselves.
The word MISERLY is usually reserved for people who are stingy with money and refuse to give it to other people, especially in the form of charitable donations. Ebenezer Scrooge is someone who starts off miserly and GREEDY but who, by the end of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, is the paragon of generosity.