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In the dictionary the meanings of these two words seem interchangeable so why do the two words exist? Are there different contexts for their usage?

Definitions by Merriam-Webster:

Definition of PERTAIN

1

  • a (1) : to belong as a part, member, accessory, or product (2) : to belong as an attribute, feature, or function <the destruction pertaining to war> (3) : to belong as a duty or right <rights that pertain to fatherhood>
  • b : to be appropriate to something <which rule pertains?>

2

  • : to have reference <books pertaining to birds>

Definition of APPERTAIN

  • : to belong or be connected as a rightful part or attribute : PERTAIN
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1 Answer

There is considerable overlap in meaning, but the most striking feature is that pertain seems to be far more popular. Records for pertain in the Corpus of Contemporary American English outnumber those for appertain by 120 to 1. The contrast in usage in British English is nowhere nearly as pronounced, but the British National Corpus still shows a preference for pertain by almost 3 to 1. The preference is confirmed, if not as decisively, by citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, where those containing pertain are more than one and a half times greater in number than those containing appertain.

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...Could you add where do the words don't overlap in meaning? I checked the dictionary entries and didn't notice any meaningful differences. –  SF. Nov 7 '12 at 9:54
    
@SF. One meaning of pertain which appertain doesn’t have is ‘To apply; to be or remain in place; to continue to be applicable.’ The OED has seven main definitions for appertain and four for pertain, each with several subsidiary definitions, so I don’t think it’s feasible to give any more detail here. –  Barrie England Nov 7 '12 at 10:22
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