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Obviously there are two different animals — a tortoise and a turtle. But I have been told by a colleague that in the US the word turtle is used to describe both.

I find this odd as for example the Galapagos tortoise was fairly well known (old & big) and it would surely be a mistake to refer to it as a turtle.

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    It's turtles all the way down!
    – MT_Head
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 2:20
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    This is sort of like the question of whether "bug" refers only to a certain order of insects, or refers to all creepy crawly things.
    – GEdgar
    Commented May 1, 2012 at 14:56
  • Well, I'm certainly glad I read this question and its answers. I never had the faintest idea that turtles and tortoises weren't just different words for the same thing. I've always just used the terms completely interchangeably. I wouldn't be able to tell one from the other anyway… Commented Mar 8, 2015 at 15:56
  • It's not obvious that there are two different animals. Many languages only have one word for both. Commented Oct 29, 2019 at 23:06
  • It is fairly clear that they are different animals... To say otherwise is like saying dogs and seals aren't obviously different. One lives in the sea and has flippers.
    – Joey Sabey
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 8:09

5 Answers 5

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It all depends on how technical you want to be.

(I am writing as the spouse of a nationally recognized expert on wild turtles, tortoises and terrapins in the US.)

In the US there are 50 species of "chelonians" excluding sea turtles. Among experts they are identified by strict Latin taxonimic names when precise species identification is required. There is also a looser English taxonomy, but there is enough regional variation that experts fall back on Latin when confusion arises.

But, even experts in "casual" conversation use the word "turtle" to include "turtles, tortoises and terrapins"; e.g. "I study turtles."

Some non-experts refer to the shelled animals that live primarily in water (lakes, rivers and streams) as "turtles" and those that live primarily on land as "tortoises". However, in the US northeast, the most common land dweller is the "box turtle".

Bottom line, in casual conversations in the US the word "turtle" encompasses all those shelled creatures.

In discussion with passionate "turtle people" try to use the correct taxonomic name.

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    Thank you very much - although in the UK I would say that tortoise and turtle are not interchangeable and people usually refer to one or the other.
    – lukehmu
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 12:35
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    Agreed, user4221. Tortoise is not interchangeable with turtle in the UK.
    – user3444
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 12:57
  • @user4221, @ElendilTheTall - I stand corrected and have removed the UK interchangeability reference
    – John Satta
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 13:42
  • It makes sense for the USA though. As John pointed out, if you see a shelled reptile on land (or in the water) in the USA, it is most likely actually a turtle.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 13:27
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    @tchrist And when you say "nobody", you mean "nobody who is a professional zoologist". I think it would be amusing to show a picture of this creature to 100 Americans and ask, What kind of animal is this? I'd guess about 90 would say, "a turtle".
    – Jay
    Commented Dec 12, 2012 at 20:19
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Your colleague is correct to an extent. Generally in British English, tortoise refers to the land animal, turtle to the marine animal, and terrapin to the freshwater animal.

In U.S. English, turtle is used as a catch-all term for all animals of that type, but distinctive tortoises like the giant Galapagos tortoise will be called such.

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Yes. American English often uses "turtle" for tortoise, in British English the two terms are not interchangeable, and (for what it's worth) Indian English often uses tortoise as the generic term for both turtles and tortoises. (The Hare and the Tortoise is never *The Hare and the Turtle, and Indian languages—and Japanese is similar according to a comment above—usually have the same words for both, and this is mapped to tortoise, not turtle.) So it varies from region to region.

As evidence, the Compact Oxford English Dictionary (UK) says, under tortoise that it's "Called turtle in North America", and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language gives, under tortoise, definition 1b saying "Chiefly British A terrestrial or freshwater chelonian."

That they are distinct in British English can be seen from this exchange from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

“When we were little,” the Mock Turtle went on at last, more calmly, though still sobbing a little now and then, “we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle—we used to call him Tortoise–—”

“Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn’t one?” Alice asked.

“We called him Tortoise because he taught us,” said the Mock Turtle angrily. “Really you are very dull!”

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    +1 for reference to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. :-) Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 19:26
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    @Andrew: To be honest, wanting to quote Alice is the only reason I posted an answer. :p Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 19:28
  • Also, in AmE, there're no hares, they're all called rabbits.
    – Mitch
    Commented Sep 6, 2011 at 19:51
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    "...and this is mapped to tortoise". Perhaps for a BE audience. For a USA audience (as both your dictionaries tell you), it should properly be mapped to "turtle". Admittedly, the English spoken in India is more BE-looking, so it makes sense that they'd translate to BE terminology.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 13:34
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    @T.E.D.: I don't know what you mean by saying what "should" be done. I was describing what is done. And in any case English in India is written for an Indian audience, not British or American. (If I understand your argument correctly, for every American expression X, you could say "it should properly be Y [for a British audience]". Which may be true, but irrelevant.) Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 14:20
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In the NOAD is reported that turtle means:

  1. a slow-moving reptile, enclosed in a scaly or leathery domed shell into which it can retract its head and thick legs.
    • Family Testudinidae: numerous genera and species, including the European tortoise (Testudo graeca).
  2. (also sea turtle) a large marine reptile with a bony or leathery shell and flippers, coming ashore annually on sandy beaches to lay eggs.
    • Families Cheloniidae (seven species) and Dermochelyidae (the leatherback).
  3. a freshwater reptile related to the turtles, typically having a flattened shell. Called terrapin in South Africa and India and tortoise in Australia.
    • Order Chelonia: several families, in particular Emydidae and Kinosternidae.
    • any reptile of this order, including the terrapins and tortoises.

It's then true that in American English the term turtle can be used to refer to an animal that in other English languages is called tortoise.
This is not something that happens only in American English, though. Also other languages have a word equivalent to turtle (In Italian tartaruga) and one equivalent to tortoise (in Italian testuggine), but the first can be used instead of the second (even if it is less accurate).
To notice also that, for example, in Italian the European tortoise is called tartaruga.

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    Let me add that in Japanese (my native language) there's no word specific for turtle or one for tortoise. The catch-all word is "kame"; if you need to specify whether it's a turtle or tortoise, a turtle is called "umi-game" meaning sea-kame and a tortoise is called "riku-game" meaning land-kame.
    – Yuji
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 15:34
  • @kiamlaluno. Thank you for pointing out the Italian terms, which I keep mixing up anyway. I should think of the term used to indicate the ancient Roman military formation (testuggine) to be reminded of the correct word for the animal.
    – Paola
    Commented Apr 30, 2012 at 23:36
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Yes. American speakers do use the term turtle to refer to both the land-based and marine reptiles. Whereas many (not all) BrEng speakers will differentiate between the two species.

I always thought it strange that the cartoon series my son used to watch, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, back in the late 1980s was titled so. It was obvious that the four pizza-obsessed ninja turtles; Raphael, Leonardo, Donatello and Michelangelo performed their heroic deeds on land and and hardly ever in sea or freshwaters. Although I do remember they spent some time in the sewers....

And now nearly thirty years later, I find that Americans still prefer to use the term turtle. In The Big Bang Theory, season 8 episode 17, Amy and Sheldon make an important announcement:

Amy: We have some exciting news.
Leonard: OK
Sheldon: As you know, Amy and I have been together a long time. And a lot of things that I never thought were possible; now seem possible.
Penny: Okaaay...
Amy: After a careful evaluation of our relationship, we decided that the time was right to take a step forward.
Leonard: ... OK
Sheldon: Do you want to say it?
Amy: Let's say it together.
Sheldon and Amy: We're getting a turtle!

We then see the couple in a pet shop choosing a tortoise.

This is all the more remarkable considering that Sheldon and Amy are scientists, Sheldon a theoretical physicist while Amy a neurobiologist.

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