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As far as AmEng is concerned, does "trace" mean just about the same as "trail" in "break/blaze a trace", and -- if indeed it does -- can "trace" be used pretty much interchangeably in every which literal sense of "trail"?

It takes about two people to break a trace through the brush ahead... source

Only tortuous paths and blazed traces led over the Appalachians... source

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    Is this American English or African English? I've never heard of it. I see the author's an American, but he's in Africa and has been for a while. It might also be an autocorrection error. Feb 25, 2014 at 16:36
  • @PeterShor LOL It is AE. It is even pointed up as an Americanism in my bilingual dictionary. I just wanted to make sure it's common enough in AE to be not misunderstood if I use it. thefreedictionary.com/trace
    – Elian
    Feb 25, 2014 at 16:45
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    I've never heard this use, but I'm not from the part of America where trailblazing is common.
    – Barmar
    Feb 25, 2014 at 17:24
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    track is much more a synonym for trail than trace is.
    – Oldcat
    Feb 25, 2014 at 19:02
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    As a hiker in the south and the Appalachian Trail, I can't recall hearing people say "trace" to mean "trail". You can find a trace of someone or something, which is a tell-tale indicator of what happened in the past, but generally the word trail is used specifically to refer to a path that someone took, or generally to refer to an official path that everyone takes (picked up his trail vs. picked up the trail, respectively).
    – TylerH
    Feb 25, 2014 at 19:31

7 Answers 7

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'trace' does have a meaning similar to 'trail'. It is uncommon - probably the most famous is the Natchez Trace from Nashville to Natchez in Mississippi, set out in the early 1800s.

The implication is that a trail is more 'improved' and used than a trace. If I make a trace and others use it, it becomes a trail. The trace is more akin to the route you took than any kind of improved path.

I would not use the words interchangeably because of the rarity and this difference in meaning.

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    I think you need to stress the rarity. Dunno when the Natchez Trace got its name, or whether some people near Natchez might still use "trace" that way generally, but my guess would be that AE use of "trace" as a kind of trail (poorly marked or maintained, or not) is rare indeed. I have never heard it used that way.
    – Drew
    Mar 10, 2014 at 1:45
  • My impression has always been that "trace" referred to a "footpath" -- a route that was routinely followed by people going from Point A to Point B. A "trace" is thus not in any way "improved" (except perhaps as a result of travelers occasionally hacking back vegetation or tossing a few rocks in a muddy area to make it passable). Generally the implication would be that the "trace" was originally established by "American Indians", and that folks of European origin then "adopted" it.
    – Hot Licks
    Mar 13, 2017 at 20:55
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I grew up in Montana and "trace" is commonly understood here (and as I understand it in other mountainous areas of the US) to mean a newly cut trail unsuitable for vehicle travel of any kind. The terrain and/or vegetation prevent travel except by foot (or sometimes horse).

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In the American South it is very common to have a street name use the work Trace in place of the more northern Trail, i.e., Ashland Trace, Wilson Trace. I believe the word traditionally refers to a Trace (or Trail) that follows along a Creek or Stream.

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Mostly regional, and in the South, you're more likely to hear "trace" used as a "path", whereas in the midwest and North, invariably such woodland routes are referred to as "trails". Both terms come from the same root in Latin, "tractus", which is also the origin of "track". Interestingly, "track" could be considered yet another similar descriptive term for a footpath.

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    @PhillipH141 Hi Phillip--this is a really good answer. You seem to know what you're talking about. ELU would be grateful if you would provide some references or sources to document the answer.
    – Xanne
    May 15, 2017 at 6:41
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The relevant definition of trace in Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) in the following entry is 2(b):

trace n (14c) 1 archaic a course or path that one follows 2 a : a mark or line left by something that has passed; also : FOOTPRINT b : a path, trail, or road made by the passage of animals, people, or vehicles ...

Mitford Mathews, A Dictionary of Americanisms (1951) offers this fairly detailed entry for trace in the "path, trail, or road" sense:

trace, n.

1. A path, trail, or road made by the passage of men or animals. 1783 in W. Fleming Travels [in the] Amer[ican] Col[onies] 673 Started in the morning, went the old trace, got alarmed, several fresh horse tracts before us. 1851 S[outhern Lit[erary] Messenger XVII 571/1 The 'trace' is growling a frequented highway. 1945 Kenney West Va. Place Names 23 The earliest road was the footway called trace or trail.

Also, traceway, rare. 1857 Ladies' Repository April 235/2 'There,' pointing to what had once been a traceway, 'that will take you down to the river.'

2. Preceded by a descriptive or specifying term. 1807 in Pike, Sources Miss. II, App. 24 [We] took the large Spanish beaten trace for the Arkansaw river. 1870 Nowland Indianapolis 14 Berry's Trace crossed that of Whetzell's. 1946 Sat[urday] Ev[ening] Post 3 Aug. 81/2 Two days later and eleven miles east of Black Cloud Agency, they crossed the Comanche trace.

As the last term in buffalo, deer, game, Indian, Natchez, Osage, river, wagon trace.

The 1783 instance that Mathews cites comes from the entry for April 15, 1783, in "Colonel William Fleming's Journal in Kentucky from Jan. 4th to April 22nd, 1783":

Started in the morning, went the old trace, got alarmed, several fresh horse tracts before us, turned out at a Spring 12 miles from Ingliss to let our horses feed, were joined by Jno. and George May Capt. Brackenridge and two three or others, likewise a party from Salt Lick Creek.

Another early instance comes from Zebulon Pike, "Journal of an Expedition Through the Interior of Louisiana, Performed in the Years 1806 and 1807," reprinted in Pike, Exploratory Travels Through the Western Territories of North America (1811). Pike refers to "the Spanish trace" (as well as to "the trace") multiple times in this journal, starting with entries for October 23 and 24, 1806:

Thursday, 23d October.—Dr. Robinson and myself, accompanied by one man, ascended the [Arkansas] river with an intention of searching for the Spanish trace. At the same time we despatched Baroney and our two hunters to kill some buffaloes, to obtain the skins for canoes. We ascended the river about twenty miles to a large branch on the right. Just at dusk gave chase to a buffalo, and were obliged to shoot nineteen balls into him before we killed him. Encamped in the fork.

Friday, 24th October.—We ascended the right hand branch about five miles, but could not see any signs of the Spanish trace; this is not surprising, as the river bears south-west, and they no doubt kept more to the west, from the head of one branch to another. We returned, and on our way killed some prairie squirrels [prairie dogs], or wish-ton-wishes, and nine large rattle snakes, which frequent their villages.

It thus appears that recorded North American use of trace to mean a path, trail, or road goes back well over 200 years. In my experience, use of the term in that sense is no longer general in U.S. English, but I would hesitate to call it archaic or obsolete, especially regionally, as in the Lower Mississippi River area (where the Natchez Trace remains a famous local feature) and the middle Great Plains area (where the Osage Trace is likewise historically significant). The extent to which traces tend to be associated with trails that (as Wikipedia puts it) "shadow the route" of rivers is unclear, but the Natchez and Osage traces certainly follow rivers for much of their distance.

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Trace is used relatively commonly in modern times all over the U.S. interchangeably with road, street, drive, walk, run, track, trail etc. They all have have nearly the the exact same use as it pertains to navigation and addresses. I’m sure the original use was more specific in that the trail or track may have been less well traveled or beaten.

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I've heard trace used to mean a trapline trail - used in Hazelton British Columbia by a man connected with the mining and fur trade.

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  • This is true...
    – Phil Sweet
    May 15, 2017 at 2:43

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