English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

What's the difference between social and societal? Are they perfectly synonymous? If not, what is the difference in nuance?

The relevant definition of social reads:

relating to society or its organization

The only definition of societal is:

relating to society or social relations

NGrams suggests that the word had its origins in the early 20th century and gained in popularity after the 1950s. Why did the use of societal crop up? Was it perhaps it is the more obvious and natural adjective of society? If it is used to disambiguate or distance away from certain connotations of social, what are they?

According to COCA, societal, while largely used in academia, also sees significant use in magazines and newspapers. It also convincingly outscores social when collocated with terms such as shift and estrangement. On the other hand, the use of societal worker, societal service, societal justice etc., do not register on COCA's scales.

share|improve this question

Social has over 500M hits in NGrams, as opposed to only 7M for the more recent societal. So the main difference is OP probably always wants to use the former, because that's the standard word and it covers all meanings.

Societal is the more recent word for of [human] society, which is its only meaning. It's primarily used in academic writing, so OP is unlikely to need it.

share|improve this answer
Nonetheless, if there's any confusion, "societal" allows you to disambiguate-- it is probably for this reason that it is reasonably common in academic writing. – Neil Coffey Oct 19 '11 at 1:36
According to etymonline, social (in the concerned sense) was first recorded in 1695 and societal in 1898, so for 200 years social managed to go by its given name, before someone donned it with a nickname. One need use societal only where ambiguity truly might arise, and those situations are rare. The sociologists I've read all use social with no second thoughts. – Talia Ford Oct 11 '13 at 12:46

I think social stands for inter-relationship whereas, societal stands more for collective tendency.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.