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. – Peter Shor Feb 25 '14 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 '14 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 '14 at 17:24
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    track is much more a synonym for trail than trace is. – Oldcat Feb 25 '14 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 '14 at 19:31

'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 '14 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 '17 at 20:55

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 '17 at 6:41

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 '17 at 2:43

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