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It seems to me that "leading edge" is the more established phrase, while "bleeding edge" is basically the same thing but the user has adapted the phrase for extra (rather meaningless) emphasis.

Or is there a meaningful distinction between the two?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 29 down vote accepted

There is, in fact, a distinction.

Leading edge in this sense, means cutting edge. It refers to the most highly sophisticated development in a field. However, it rarely or never has the connotation of risky or untested. It is almost always used to describe the best; not necessarily the newest.

Bleeding edge would refer to a development that is so new that it could have a high risk of being unreliable and may incur greater expense in order to use it:

Bleeding edge: A pun on "leading edge." It implies that using the latest technology is often risky because it has not been tested with enough users and may not perform as expected. Introducing an advanced product or service is also risky because the user community may not be ready for it or really want it.

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So "leading edge" technology is similar but less risky? Is the level of risk quantifiable? –  FrustratedWithFormsDesigner Aug 29 '11 at 21:14
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IMHO leading edge or cutting edge wouldn't be used of a risky development. –  Daniel Aug 29 '11 at 21:23
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+1 for the distinction between best and newest. –  eswald Oct 10 '11 at 17:06
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+1 I'd never heard bleeding edge before. Thanks for enlightening me. –  onomatomaniak Oct 14 '11 at 8:13
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@DilipSarwate: maybe true, but irrelevant. It is not the EDGE that is moving in this metaphor, but YOU. The relevant saying is, "When you're working at the cutting edge, the trick is to stay behind the blade." –  Hexagon Tiling Mar 9 '12 at 23:28

There is a slight semantic difference here.

Leading edge refers to people or things who are the foremost or the best in a technology, science, art, skill, etc.

Bleeding edge also refers to this fact of being in the foremost, but the difference between bleeding edge and leading edge, is that bleeding edge is risky. Leading edge is not risky. Bleeding edge is. For example:

Bleeding edge technology refers to technology that is so new that it could have a high risk of being unreliable and may incur greater expense in order to use it.

PC Encyclopedia defines bleeding edge:

A pun on "leading edge." It implies that using the latest technology is often risky because it has not been tested with enough users and may not perform as expected. Introducing an advanced product or service is also risky because the user community may not be ready for it or really want it

Note how it's derived from leading edge.

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"Bleeding edge" is a pun which combines the sound of "leading edge" and the knife metaphor of "cutting edge". The fundamental idea is that it's just a bit beyond the cutting edge. –  Tom Anderson Aug 29 '11 at 21:45
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Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that the only way to discover the limits of the possible was to go a little way beyond them into the impossible. The bleeding edge is a little way beyond the limit. –  Tom Anderson Aug 29 '11 at 21:47
    
@Tom I think you should post an answer, because you are more right than these other answers. –  KitFox Sep 2 '11 at 2:37
    
@Kit: I think this answer is essentially correct. I believe it's better to buttress an essentially correct answer with a comment than to post yet another answer, even if it is slightly more correct. And here, the difference between what Thursagen and i are saying is so small as to fall well within the realm of personal opinion. –  Tom Anderson Sep 2 '11 at 19:12
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@TomAnderson "The fundamental idea is that it's just a bit beyond the cutting edge." Actually, bleeding starts after the cutting edge has gone past (and usually deeper). Thus in actuality it is the cutting edge that is just a bit beyond the bleeding edge, while the usage is taken to mean exactly the opposite. –  Dilip Sarwate Jan 14 '12 at 2:54

Leading edge is a term for being in the forefront of a field. The term probably comes from the leading edge of an airfoil or similar body in aerodynamics. Bleeding edge is a play on leading edge, referring to the high risk of leading edge technology failing or encountering problems.

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