For example, cemetery instead of graveyard.

In which context would a word of Latin origin be more proper? Or is there no difference at all?

  • 1
    But grave ultimately derives from Latin gravis "weighty, serious, heavy, grievous, oppressive", so that distinction doesn't apply here anyway. The biggest difference I can see with these two is there are 4139 elephants' graveyards in Google Books, but not a single elephants' cemetry Jul 13, 2013 at 19:13
  • 1
    But "yard" does not come from Latin. A graveyard is certainly very different from just a grave, and its total meaning could be compared to "cemetery", that has its roots entirely in Latin. Jul 13, 2013 at 19:18
  • And cemetery apparently comes from PIE through Greek through Latin through Old French. It's not exactly your typical "Latin word". Jul 13, 2013 at 19:24
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    @FumbleFingers No, the grave in graveyard must definitely does not derive from Latin gravis meaning burdened or heavy (see gravid). Rather, it’s from Old English græf, from the verb grafan meaning to dig, and is still reflected in modern engrave.
    – tchrist
    Jul 13, 2013 at 19:43
  • 1
    ...mind you, a gravid woman hasn't even put the baby in the cradle yet, so it's as far away from the grave as it'll ever be. Jul 13, 2013 at 19:55

2 Answers 2


The difference is very subtle, and is not simply a matter of "formal" vs "informal", though that is one component of it.

In this particular case, I think one of the biggest factors in the choice is euphemism. Graveyard contains grave, which some people are uncomfortable talking about in our society where we put so much effort into pretending that death doesn't exist. Cemetery distances us a little from that uncomfortable reality.

  • Very good answer, I haven't thought in that way. Although the euphemism point does not consider subtleties like "seek/beseech/beg/ask VS latin inquire/request", it is a very good point, because you evinced the idea that that there are another factors that must be considered when choosing a word from a Latin origin, apart from mere formality. Jul 13, 2013 at 22:07
  • @EricsonWillians Evinced, you say? How about just raised or showed or brought up? :) Latinate words are often used to cloud the minds of those addressed, for as Orwell put it, “A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.”
    – tchrist
    Jul 13, 2013 at 23:03
  • I was raised learning the Portuguese language, so this is a very subconscious process. The equivalent in Portuguese is "evidenciar / to evince", so it is quite hard for me to really THINK in english, because that would mean thinking in another origin (Non-Latin). I guess I suffer more with English than with German because latin words in English are far more frequent. PS: Things like "brought up" does not make any sense in my native language or in a "latin point of view", so I understand them in an entirely "english way", which actually is not a REAL english thinking haha. Jul 13, 2013 at 23:25

Tricky one, this. In general, wherever several options for words exist to convey a given sense, whichever word is least common will sound most formal or fancy. Because English is a Germanic language with lots of Latin/French borrowings, a lot of our most frequently-used vocabulary is Germanic in origin, so the Latinate alternatives sound a bit odd. So if I used a word like 'piscatory' instead of 'fishy', you might raise an eyebrow.

That said, lots of our very common words (like 'very', and 'common'!) are also Latin in origin, often adopted through medieval French. So we have loads of informal Latinate words that we don't notice as being Latinate. So if I used a deliberately Germanic word like 'folkly' instead of 'common', then you'd think I were being formal. And weird. From time to time, enthusiastic amateur philologists have tried to write 'reformed' dictionaries of English, stripping out Latinate words and replacing them with good old Anglo-Saxonisms. They didn't get far.

And finally... there's a tradition of using Latinate neologisms (aka new words borrowed from Latin) to sound formal. There was a bit of a vogue for these 'inkhorn terms' in the sixteenth century, and an equal vogue for attacking the people who used them. A lot of the early English dictionaries are stuffed with those 'hard and unusual' words which had been optimistically borrowed in. Many died out, but many have survived and no longer strike us as odd or formal (e.g. celebrate, capacity, dismiss).

  • Hey thanks, I was wracking my brains for inkhorn terms but couldn’t pull it up.
    – tchrist
    Jul 14, 2013 at 16:32

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