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I think changes to phrases that don't change their meaning are interesting. Example: an ice cold beer and a nice cold beer mean pretty much the same thing.

I heard another one this morning on the radio in a story about coal. The phrase used is fluctuates widely, but I know I've also heard fluctuates wildly. Looking at the ngram, I'm surprised to see that widely is far more popular (although with 0 smoothing, it does fluctuate wildly.

Where did either of these phrases come from? Which came first and which is more correct? Wildly makes more sense to me in most contexts, but widely makes sense too.

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Most of the answers here merely assert that the two phrases mean the same thing: I personally would never use "widely" except in reference to a group of ranges any of which in isolation might not fluctuate at all (example: FooBM's stock does not fluctuate wildly, but tech stocks overall fluctuate widely ). "Wide" can imply "broad," where "wild" never can. –  horatio Oct 27 '11 at 18:08
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9 Answers

People use wildly to quantify, as in “they were wildly outnumbered”. Although there are more Google hits for “wildly outnumbered”, I think widely is more appropriate as it denotes range and not variance.

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It seems to me the key difference is that wildly implies unpredictability.

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This doesn't answer the question - where did the phrases come from, which came first, and which is more correct? It would make a nice comment though. –  Daniel Oct 29 '11 at 13:31
    
You are correct - point taken. I have insufficient reputation for that, so I probably should have just passed on the comment. –  Paul Jackson Oct 29 '11 at 13:56
    
Well, if you find another couple questions to answer, I would be surprised if you couldn't get enough reputation soon. (To the point, I've flagged for the post to be turned into a comment; even though you can't post comments, we can turn an answer into a comment.) –  Daniel Oct 29 '11 at 14:00
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Andrew Neely is close, but not quite there:

"Fluctuates widely" means the standard deviation (possible ranges, whatever) is (relatively) huge.

"Fluctuates wildly" means the standard deviation isn't necessarily huge, but it wavers between its two extremes very often.

What you have is a punnet square of possibilities: Not widely and not wildly, just widely, just wildly, and both widely and wildly. Choosing whether to use "widely" or "wildly" in speech depends first on whether both apply, and then on which one you want to draw attention to.

EDIT: Jefromi brings up a good point in the comments, that while "wildly" doesn't mean "widely", it's not often used for small, rapid fluctuations. So I'll include a third option that embodies that description: "fluctuates rapidly".

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+1 for being correct, and for not having an obligatory n-gram. –  BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft Oct 27 '11 at 21:32
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I've never understood the fascination with those when looking for correctness. Authors generally like artistic license when it comes to wordplay... –  Izkata Oct 27 '11 at 22:01
    
I'd say that wild fluctuations are more often wide - I don't think many people would describe very small but rapid fluctuations as wild. +1, though. It's definitely not just an emotional difference. –  Jefromi Oct 27 '11 at 22:27
    
@Jefromi: Hm true. I think that deserves an addendum –  Izkata Oct 28 '11 at 1:12
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To beg the question a bit, I don't think widely implies regularity, so if widely can mean large and irregular, how is that different from wildly? Widely could mean "large but in control" and wildly could mean "out of control," but I have a strong suspicion that very few people think in terms of statistical control when they use these terms. –  Caleb Oct 28 '11 at 15:10
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Interesting question! Looking specifically at NGrams for the period 1700-1903 I find there are actually only 19 hits for fluctuates wildly, as opposed to almost 500 for widely. So I guess it's fair to say widely was the "original", though I personally always say (and assume I hear) wildly.

It's easy to imagine that repeated mishearings and repetitions will cause different subsets of speakers to espouse one form or the other. As @Martin's chart shows, widely has been falling out of favour over the last half-century or so. As usual, British English is a couple of decades behind the US on this one... enter image description here

I don't think any significant number of speakers would actually distinguish the two forms as having different meanings. I think most speakers are probably like me - they know which version they use themselves, and usually either hear that version regardless of what was actually said, or assume the other person made a slip of the tongue/didn't know the "correct" form.

EDIT: After a few seconds seconds googling I found this little gem. About 20 lines into his diatribe, the author quotes someone saying [the price of gold] fluctuates so widely - then a few lines later he takes issue with this, claiming that Gold does NOT “fluctuate wildly”. Obviously at least one person agrees with me that these are two versions of the same "set phrase".

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What do you think about these results: goo.gl/VBQXl, goo.gl/1lNQ9 and finally goo.gl/KUmg0 ? ~148,000 vs 6 –  Unreason Oct 28 '11 at 7:51
    
It seems likely at least some of those half-dozen instances of both being used within one text may reflect differentiation on the part of the writer. But others (as per my example above) clearly don't. After leafing through a few pages of the separate usages, I honestly can't see any real support for the idea of writers making a semantic distinction in general. Scientific/academic usage seems to favour widely even more than the overall 6:1 bias, and economic contexts maybe a bit more the other way, but nothing paricularly clear-cut to me, at least. –  FumbleFingers Oct 28 '11 at 17:02
    
...straw-polling half-a-dozen friends with "fill in the missing blank" for values fluctuated wi..ly, I got five wildly (the only widely was something of a statistician). Nobody mentioned two possibilities until the other one was pointed out after they'd made their choice and said what it meant. I still think @Izkata's distinction is largely a post-hoc rationalisation for the fact that this single set phrase has a tendency to slip around a bit. –  FumbleFingers Oct 28 '11 at 17:12
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In both the examples you give -- ice cold vs nice cold and widely vs wildly -- the words sound similar and the concepts are related, but this does not mean that either case represents the same idea or that one must be derived from the other.

I'll mostly ditto Izkata on the details in this case.

I'd just add that I'm sure I am not saying anything new or surprising when I point out that two words can sound similar but have no relation in either meaning or origin. "ice" is not anything like "rice" despite the fact that the two words sound very similar, etc.

Poets and public speakers may take advantage of such similarities in sound to make an effective turn of phrase. But I wouldn't attach any significance to the similarity in sound per se.

It may be, in any given case, that one of a pair of similar-sounding phrases is a corruption of the other. But not necessarilly; I wouldn't leap to conclusions. You'd have to study the history.

Both "fluctuates widely" and "fluctuates wildly" have coherent meanings, as do "ice cold beer" and "nice cold beer".

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Both are commonly used, but I believe that "wildly" is more correct. Consider the dictionary definitions at M-W and dictionary.com:

to change continually; shift back and forth; vary irregularly: The price of gold fluctuated wildly last month.

to shift back and forth uncertainly

"Wild" fits something that is varying "irregularly" and "uncertainly". "Wide" does not equate well to either of these terms.

Likewise consider the alternate definition related to a wave:

to ebb and flow in waves

to move back and forth in waves.

A wave itself is neither "wide" nor "wild". One can move "wildly", but one cannot move "widely".

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You're right, I did. Editing. Thanks for pointing that out. –  Lynn Oct 27 '11 at 17:07
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Exactly, they both make sense. And they are not the same so neither is 'more correct'.

Some graph can fluctuate wildly over relatively narrow range of values while another can fluctuate widely in relatively smooth way.

As the fluctuation is more frequently used in technical parlance you would expect a more objectively descriptive 'widely' to go with it.

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I'd expect both to indicate large standard deviation, but wildly to imply more randomness. A high amplitude sine wave might fluctuate widely but not wildly. However, I don't think it's safe to read much more than "it changes a lot" into most uses of either phrase. –  Caleb Oct 27 '11 at 15:59
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In actual usage it looks like there is a lot of overlap, so that these expressions are usually semantically equivalent. However you are quite correct that widely is used more in an academic context where the distinct meanings are more important. –  z7sg Ѫ Oct 27 '11 at 16:03
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The two phrases mean different things.

Saying something fluctuates widely, the speaker is using an emotionless statistical statement that would be right at home in a dispassionate statistical brief.

Saying something fluctuates wildly is not emotionless. It is an evocative and emotive statement. In my mind, saying something is wild brings up pictures of wild animals darting to and fro with a reckless, frenzied abandon.

Dictionary.com says the adverb wild means

In an uncontrolled manner: "The bad guys shot wild."

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Something that fluctuates "widely" fluctuates over a large range. Something that fluctuates "wildly" fluctuates with rapid and unpredictable changes in direction and speed. –  David Schwartz Oct 27 '11 at 21:44
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@DavidSchwartz: Your comment should be the answer imo, as it is the most significant difference. –  Joren Oct 27 '11 at 22:07
    
Adding the emotional content is a nice touch, but doesn't make up for missing the inherent distinction in content. –  Rex Kerr Oct 27 '11 at 22:29
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In BE at least it should be "fluctuates wildly"

Although ngrams seems to disagree.

enter image description here

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That'd be my expectation as an American, too. I was very surprised to see the opposite in the ngram. –  Caleb Oct 27 '11 at 15:35
    
The same majority can be seen when splitting out the Ngrams: when limited to the American English corpus and the British English corpus. I'm surprised too, but at least we can see the gap has been closing recently. –  Hugo Oct 27 '11 at 15:40
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It's just not the same phrase, comparison is rather meaningless. –  Unreason Oct 27 '11 at 15:52
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@Unreason: This is another issue where it would be hard to find a killer argument one way or the other. I'd take an awful lot of convincing before I could accept that these aren't basically two variations of the same "set phrase" where usage fluctuates wildly because of mishearings. –  FumbleFingers Oct 27 '11 at 16:05
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