What's the difference between "bush" and "shrub"? Are these absolute synonyms?

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    There are certainly meanings of bush for which shrub is not appropriate. Example (Safe for work) – Andrew Leach Oct 23 '13 at 11:34
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    And do they denote the same when we are talking about a plant? – Stacheldraht Oct 23 '13 at 12:45
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    Please edit your question to show us what research you have already done. – Matt E. Эллен Oct 23 '13 at 13:13
  • google.com/search?q="difference between bush and shrub" – Kris Oct 24 '13 at 12:46
  • Not entirely germane, but Shrub is a derogatory nickname for George W. Bush (i.e., the younger President Bush). I believe the late Molly Ivins, a Texan left-wing journalist, coined it when Bush was running for Governor of Texas. – Andrew Lazarus Oct 26 '13 at 6:39

From a horticultural standpoint, 'bush' and 'shrub' are not synonymous. 'Bush' is a term used by the uninitiated to describe any bushlike plant, but in horticulture, bush usually refers more to the shape something makes, so you might see a plant description which says 'forms a bush' (as opposed to being tree like or with growth which doesn't bush out but goes straight up, for instance, Berberis 'Red Pillar'). 'Shrub', on the other hand, has a very distinct meaning - it is a plant which retains structure above ground year round, evergreen or otherwise, which cannot be split or divided because the growth is coming from one set of roots. Some shrubs can be considered small trees, but will still be defined as shrubs.

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  • You mention the different and conflicting usages, but a good answer on ELU requires supporting references. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 '15 at 10:57

There are no exact synonyms. If there are two differently pronounced words that seem to be interchangeable in most instances without changing the meaning, there will still be contexts where one sounds more right than the other, one is more common than the other, one is not said in certain contexts, one is used differently in other contexts giving it different associations. Identical dictionary definitions do not make two words identical; the dictionary is not saying enough.

But, yes, despite the technically used differences by botanists and lawn care specialists, shrub and bush are very very similar in informal speech, so I'll try to show how they are different.

To me, a bush is more about the specific plant and shrub is more about the generic concept of those kinds of plants.

A shrub is "a woody plant smaller than a tree, usually having multiple permanent stems branching from or near the ground"

A bush is "a shrub or clump of shrubs with stems of moderate length." so they definitely seem to be exact synonyms.

I think of shrubs as decorative plants usually around or nearby a house. They are usually made of bushes (In fact I can't think of anything else the shrubs would be made of).

I suppose you could have bamboo as shrubs, and bamboo are definitely not bushes, though they can certainly be bushy (short and full as opposed to tall and thin).

You're more likely to point at a single plant and say 'that bush needs trimming', but to a whole bunch of them and say 'The shrubs need trimming'.

'in the bush' sounds a bit Australian or African, like you're out in the countryside with no trees. But that might also be called 'shrubland' or 'scrubland'. That's interesting question: "what is the difference between 'shrub' and 'scrub'?" (interesting because they are cognate like 'shirt' and 'skirt', or 'ship' and 'skiff')

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  • "There are no 'exact' synonyms." I forget who suggested 'abstruse' and 'recondite', but I've not found a situation where they're not interchangeable. Of course, neither is all that common, which certainly helps. – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 '15 at 14:04
  • @EdwinAshworth Sorry. There are no exact synonyms...except when people stipulate that two words must be treated so (as in the sciences). – Mitch Aug 20 '15 at 19:06
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    Have you managed to prise apart 'abstruse' and 'recondite'? Of course, taken to its limit, '2,4-dinitropnenylhydrazine' has different connotations for different people. 'All words are infinitely polysemous.' – Edwin Ashworth Aug 20 '15 at 22:53

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