Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

According to several dictionaries, a "trunk" is a large case or box that can be used when travelling or for storage, whereas a "chest" is used only for storage. Is that the only difference between the concepts of "chest" and "trunk"? Which word is more common? Which one comes to your mind first when you see that kind of large box?

share|improve this question
3  
Chest vs trunk –  Matt Эллен May 16 '12 at 7:54
    
Chests can be used for traveling, especially when they are owned by sailors or pirates — "Fifteen men on a dead man's chest. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum." And see this Ngram for sea chest and sea trunk. Barely anybody uses sea trunk. –  Peter Shor May 16 '12 at 12:37
add comment

3 Answers 3

up vote 4 down vote accepted

These definitions were found on Wordnik:

chest:
- A sturdy box with a lid and often a lock, used especially for storage.
- The part of the body between the neck and the abdomen, enclosed by the ribs and the breastbone; the thorax
.

trunk:
- A large packing case or box that clasps shut, used as luggage or for storage.
- The body of a human or animal excluding the head and limbs.

I found it interesting that the words were practically synonymous in two very different senses.

As to your comment: dictionaries do not seem to be very specific when defining "trunk" and "chest", that's partly because, much like the storage items themselves, the words are very versatile.

Quite often, you'll find a descriptive word in front of chest: treasure chest, tea chest, tool chest, medicine chest, e.g.

There are other ways the words differ, too: some might call a bureau a chest (or chest of drawers), and many of us carry a key that opens the trunk of our car. I suggest visiting the Wordnik pages for expanded definitions and example uses.

As for using the words in your original sense (to describe an object such as the one depicted below), I think you were onto something when you said we'd be more likely to travel with a trunk than with a chest, but I might use either word to describe the object in the picture.

enter image description here

share|improve this answer
    
And then there's locker and coffer. –  choster May 16 '12 at 12:51
    
I understand that "trunk" and "chest" are versatile words that cannot be precisely defined in a few words. –  Albertus May 17 '12 at 6:52
add comment

Both words overlap in meaning but also have some very different alternate definitions, and dictionaries notoriously don't give the nuance that is obvious to native users of the words.

A chest is - a large reinforced container of a certain size - a large piece of furniture for holding clothes (a chest of drawers) - the thorax (the lungs, heart and breast area) considered from the front. From the back it is referred to as the upper back.

A trunk is - a large reinforced container (of that same general size, so synonymous) - the enclosed storage area in a car (in American English) - the main part of a tree coming out of the ground (and by analogy any large cylindrical conduit or linearly organized central 'thing'. - the main part of the body excluding head and limbs

Because of these many meanings, an ngram comparison will be very misleading (who knows which meaning is being used?).

For the thing one travels with, 'chest' or 'trunk' feel equally interchangeable (especially given that one normally just uses a 'suitcase' nowadays). On reflection, it feels like 'trunk' would be more likely to call the thing you travel with (as it is also a synonym for a 'suitcase', but chest is not).

For the anatomical regions, even when used informally and not technically, 'chest' is much more common; one is more likely to refer to the specific area, chest or abdomen (the lower part of the trunk) rather than the entire trunk.

share|improve this answer
add comment

That is basically it.

A chest has connotations of keeping valuables safe, a tradesman would keep his tools locked in a tool-chest for example. A trunk would usually be used for clothes, and would be lined in some way to prevent them from being torn. Traditionally it would be covered in leather.

share|improve this answer
2  
The connotation of keeping valuables safe in "chest" and not (or not so much) in "trunk" is helpful. English dictionaries do not seem to be very specific when defining "trunk" and "chest"... –  Albertus May 16 '12 at 9:03
    
I am glad it helped. –  Roaring Fish May 16 '12 at 9:48
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

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.