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I was wondering what the differences are between

  • colloquium
  • seminar
  • and some other possibly interchangeable words you might think off top of your head ...

I get such notifications regularly from a certain person, and get confused when and why he uses which.

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And then you have "symposium," which literally means a drinking party. – Ben Crowell Jul 24 '14 at 23:57
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Please note that this is not based on any cited source but on my own observations.

Colloquia and seminars both happen in an academic setting. At my university we have a weekly physics colloquium that — in general — is geared to a well educated, but not specialized audience. (I.e., a particle physicist will present a topic on a fairly advanced level, but so that, say, a condensed matter physicist will still be able to understand). In general they seem to be more "populist" and less technical, covering popular topics in physics (quantum information, graphene) and in the news (global warming, nuclear weapons/power) but from the perspective of a scientist.

A seminar on the other hand, in an academic setting, is a much more specialized meeting, also with a formal academic presentation. For instance, there are weekly seminar meeting for the Atomic, Particle, String Theory, Condensed Matter, and Astrophysics groups. There is also an invited speaker, but the audience is much more technically versed and the topics tend to be much more technical or specific to the field. Generally someone from outside the field will have trouble understanding a seminar presentation.

In a grand sense the two words are equivalent, but a colloquium, as pointed out, is literally a "conversation" and in general has a connotation of being more broad, more accessible, or on a more popular topic.

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Doesn't a seminar sometimes go for multiple meetings on the same topic? – Ben Crowell Jul 24 '14 at 23:58

I have only heard the word colloquium with respect to universities and the like, in a very academic context. But seminar is used by a broader class of people. You can have seminars for professionals (e.g. salesmen, accountants) etc.

From Princeton's Wordnet:

A colloquium is a "an academic meeting or seminar ...".

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In regular usage I don't think there is much difference. An individual institution may use different terms for different types of talk - but I don't think there is an ISO standard for what each constitutes.

If you did want to partition them I suppose Colloquium (literally conversation) implies a more informal side-meeting while Seminar is a more formal talk to an audience.

They have different historical meanings - but unless you are attending Plato's academy that probably doesn't help you decide which one to got to.

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Actually, it's symposium that means "drinking party". Seminar comes from Latin seminarium, meaning "breeding ground" or "seed plot". – JeffE Jul 24 '14 at 16:01
@jeffE thanks, had my wires (and defns) crossed – mgb Jul 24 '14 at 20:12

To me it's like: A Colloquium is an 'informal' meeting where students doing similar/allied courses at a university meet & discuss after some faculty member spoke; while a Seminar is a 'formal' meeting in a lecture hall, where an invited speaker presents a well researched topic/paper of specialized nature;and so the audience have to be knowledgeable enough to understand.

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A colloquium, as much as I know, is the simple and informal way of adressing/interacting with audience within an academic environment, while seminar simply connotes the formal way of presenting a paper or teaching audience in a particular field what is peculiar to them.

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