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What are the differences between the two? I thought that "World" means everything, i.e the same as "Universe". But people seem to think it means the same as "Earth".

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While we're on the topic, is anyone else annoyed by the recent prevalence of "Earth" being used instead of "world"? –  JeffSahol Jun 22 '11 at 13:40

5 Answers 5

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I am with the people.

To me as well, World = Earth while the Universe = earth and space including the great unknown.

The Oxford seems to agree.

Origin of World: Old English w(e)oruld, from a Germanic compound meaning 'age of man'; related to Dutch wereld and German Welt.

Origin of Universe: late Middle English: from Old French univers or Latin universum, neuter of universus 'combined into one, whole', from uni- 'one' + versus 'turned' (past participle of vertere).

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World != Earth. World is more closely equal to planet. For example if you lived on Mars, using world would no longer refer to Earth but to Mars. –  Tester101 Dec 23 '10 at 16:23
    
@Tester101 Earth is The World (e.g. Times Atlas of the World). Mars is a world. –  slim Feb 28 '12 at 13:10

Universe is unambiguous. It only ever means all that exists. World can have all of the meanings stated in previous answers to the question.

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Universe means all existing matter and space considered as a whole; it is also used with the meaning of a particular sphere of activity, interest, or experience.

The front parlor was the hub of her universe.

World means:

  • (usually the world) the earth, together with all of its countries, peoples, and natural features.
  • (the world) all of the people, societies, and institutions on the earth.
  • [as adjective] denoting one of the most important or influential people or things of its class.
  • another planet like the earth.
  • the material universe or all that exists; everything.

He was doing his bit to save the world.
They had been brought up to regard France as a world power.
Scientists are verifying the possibility of life on other worlds.

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Can you give an example of the last usage? (material universe) –  UpTheCreek Jun 22 '11 at 12:21
    
I've often applied the meaning of "a particular sphere of activity, interest, or experience" to "world." I'm not the only person to do this, surely? –  user867 Dec 27 '12 at 2:52

I'd say the difference depends on context. The most literal senses of world versus universe are, respectively, the planet Earth versus all that exists. However, for practical purposes, it is often clear that all instances of a thing that could possibly exist must exist on our planet, so that the difference becomes irrelevant.

You are the most beautiful man in the world.

Since there are hardly any men outside Earth, the words world and universe could be used interchangeably here.

This must be the highest mountain in the universe.

Since there are mountains on Mars, you could not substitute world here.

In many expressions where it doesn't matter, the word world is used because it is the more common word.

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Thanks for italicising, I was too lazy. –  Cerberus Dec 23 '10 at 17:31

World generally means Earth, as InSane mentioned.

Sometimes, however, it is used in a more general sense. See definitions 7-9 in this dictionary entry. Also, consider the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics (also known as many-universes) and the notion of possible world in philosophy and logic.

I speculate that "world" is often seen as an acceptable substitute for "universe" (even though it's a less common meaning) for reasons of convenience: "world" is two syllables shorter.

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+1 I think the two are used in a figurative sense to mean all-encompassing. Universe will also be used to trump world the way fortissimo trumps forte. –  Robusto Dec 23 '10 at 17:19

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