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Normally, "or" is used in situations where either side of the "or" can be true:

I want an easy job or a short job.

The job can be easy, the job can be short, or the job can be both easy and short.

However I've encountered many times people using "or" a different way, e.g.:

Could you keep a different kind of fast such as a fast of silence or a Maun Vrath?

In the translating example, both sides are exactly the same. "Maun Vrath" means "fast of silence" in another language.

Why is "or" used this way?

Also, how/when did this practice start?

  • I see that "or" is very concise as compared to other methods, so that's probably why it is used. I think I'm more interested in how /when it started. – rishimaharaj Feb 27 '14 at 3:22
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    "Or" offers alternatives- it doesn't always have to be true/false alternatives. In this instance it's providing alternate descriptions or names for the same thing. "... a fast of silence or [you may prefer the term] a Maun Vrath." – Jim Feb 27 '14 at 3:31
  • The parenthetical could be used in writing, but there's no easy way to translate that to spoken language. Your other variants are too wordy. As @Jim says, "or" can be used in a number of different ways to specify alternatives, e.g. "I want an apple or an orange". – Barmar Feb 27 '14 at 8:40
  • @rishimaharaj, The "or a" here is short for "or also known as a". – Pacerier Oct 5 '15 at 0:01
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This use of "or" is essentially shorthand for the phrase "also known as" or "called":

Could you keep a different kind of fast such as a fast of silence, or Maun Vrath?

Could you keep a different kind of fast such as a fast of silence, also known as a Maun Vrath?

Could you keep a different kind of fast such as a fast of silence, called a Maun Vrath?

The use of parenthesis is optional:

Could you keep a different kind of fast such as a fast of silence (or Maun Vrath)?

And some writers prefer to reverse the order, which eliminates the need for the "or":

Could you keep a different kind of fast such as a Maun Vrath (a fast of silence)?

Your alternative suggestions fulfill the same role:

Could you keep a different kind of fast such as Maun Vrath (literally, a fast of silence)?

The choice between all of these variations is stylistic and which is preferred is a matter of opinion.


Also, how/when did this practice start?

I am not certain when this usage of "or" became commonplace but it is fairly well ingrained at this point. Your note of "or" being "used in situations where either side of the 'or' can be true" is still accurate but only in the sense that either word or phrase is appropriate and the author is trying to teach the reader that they mean the same thing. As in, the reader can use either term.

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