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Both words seem to be used interchangeably. E.g.,

  • I'm feeling lonely tonight.
  • I'm feeling lonesome tonight.

I guess I always felt "lonesome" was somehow more severe and heart-wrenching, but is there any real basis for that interpretation?

It looks from google n-grams that like both have coexisted for some time.

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I just checked three dictionaries, and it seems like the words are pretty much interchangeable. I can't detect any evidence that one word suggests a more heart-wrenching loneliness than the other. –  J.R. Sep 27 '12 at 9:27
    
I'm surprised there's no difference. Wonder why they are both in such common usage. –  Urbycoz Sep 27 '12 at 12:14
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@Urbycoz: Lonesome is very much an Americanism, but as that NGram shows, even American usage has shifted significantly in favour of lonely over the past century. I know as a Brit I wouldn't expect to hear lonesome so often anyway - but when I do, I always assume the speaker has been watching too many Western movies! –  FumbleFingers Sep 27 '12 at 12:57
    
Could give a link to that Ngram please? I'd like to see its parameters. –  Andrew Leach Sep 27 '12 at 14:07
    
books.google.com/ngrams/… –  Urbycoz Sep 27 '12 at 14:22
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4 Answers

I don't believe there is a difference, apart from lonesome being mainly AmE. Lonely appears to be slightly earlier than lonesome, but both first appeared around the time of the Pilgrim Fathers and I suspect that usage separated with the dialects.

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There is one sense of lonesome that is unique--lonesome as short for 'lonesome self' in the fixed phrases "on your lonesome" and "by your lonesome," meaning alone.

E.g., "Now why are you sitting there, all by your lonesome? Come on over here."

http://www.ldoceonline.com/dictionary/lonesome

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Lonely and Lonesome are synonymous.

But generally, lonely is meant to mean lack of companionship and personification of that lack (e.g. Houses cannot be lonely unless it is personified), whereas lonesome signifies something desolate, secluded or solitary like a lonesome house.

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Your parenthetical statement is inaccurate. See Collins, meaning 2, e.g. Even unpersonified houses can be lonely, if they're in a secluded place. –  J.R. Sep 27 '12 at 10:40
    
Okay, but see meaning 4. Houses don't feel now do they? :) –  VarunAgrawal Sep 28 '12 at 5:18
    
I'm not sure what meaning 4 has to do with my comment, or Doyle's lonely house. (You realize, of course, that when a word is used, it's usage need only align with one meaning of the word, not all of them. We can talk about the fruit of this discussion, e.g., without any worry about the seeds of flora.) –  J.R. Sep 28 '12 at 9:01
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Take "lonesome" seriously -- it differs culturally, linguistically, "conceptually" from our depressive "lonely," owned as it is by the shrinks. It's a feeling-perception, open-ended, resistant to individual, particular (dictionary) definitions. It so invites reflective, concentrated exploration, as in the only-one-so-far, easy-to-read study of its American usage, LONESOME: The Spiritual Meanings of American Solitude (2009, IBTauris/Palgrave). Americanists, take note and join the discussion. (This contributed by its author.)

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