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Even having looked in the OED I am still slightly unclear as to which contexts require the adjective ceremonious and which ceremonial.

The OED treatment of ceremonious is as below with some of the more recent examples. You will notice that in sense 1 it is equated to ceremonial. However sense 5 suggests a slightly different meaning.

  1. Pertaining to, or consisting of, ceremonies or outward forms and rites; = ceremonial adj., formal.

1737 D. Waterland Rev. Doctr. Eucharist 443 Ceremonious Observances.

  1. Full of ceremony; accompanied with rites, religious or showy.

1883 Manch. Examiner 14 Dec. 5/2 A statue has been raised to him..and there was a ceremonious unveiling.

  1. According to prescribed or customary formalities or punctilios.

1863 M. Howitt tr. F. Bremer Greece & Greeks II. xi, His..somewhat ceremonious politeness.

†4. According to the Ceremonial Law. Obs.

1656 S. Winter Serm. 120 The holiness of children, which some say was ceremonious.

  1. Of persons: Addicted to ritual observances (obs.); given to ceremony; punctilious in observance of formalities, esp. those of intercourse between ranks or persons.

1829 K. H. Digby Broad Stone of Honour: Godefridus xviii. 223 The ceremonious and ungrateful courtiers of Vienna.

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    Ceremonial is far more common. I think ceremonious could often be used as a synonym, but in practice when it is used, it's more likely to be much more figurative. Thus a ceremonial speech would normally be one actually delivered as part of a formal ceremony, whereas a ceremonious speech is more likely to be just one that sounds like that. But that's just an opinion. I can't see anything in the full OED making that distinction obvious. – FumbleFingers Jul 3 '15 at 21:01
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    Generally, people are ceremonious in their manner of doing things; objects employed in ceremonies are ceremonial objects. – Brian Donovan Jul 3 '15 at 21:02
  • @FumbleFingers Yes, on further reflection I think that OED sense 5 of ceremonious largely confirms what you have said. But it was the equals sign in sense 1 which was confusing me. If you post your comment as an answer I will accept it. – WS2 Jul 3 '15 at 21:37
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    @BrianDonovan I agree but the distinction is not simply between people and objects. People behave ceremonially when engaged in ceremonies. But as for old Uncle Bert, he has a ceremonious way of greeting people at the door, even the postman. – WS2 Jul 4 '15 at 7:50
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The two terms ceremonial and cerimonious have the same root "cerinomy" but meaning and usage are different even though they are often incorrectly used as synonyms:

  • “Ceremonial” and “ceremonious” are often considered synonyms, and can indeed be used interchangeably in many contexts. But there are some cases in which one is better than the other.

  • If you are talking about the performance of a ceremony, the word you will usually want is “ceremonial” as in “ceremonial offering,” “ceremonial garb,” or “ceremonial dance.” Sikhs traditionally wear ceremonial daggers.

  • “Ceremonious” is mostly used to describe formal behavior which often has little or no connection with a literal ceremony: “ceremonious manners,” “ceremonious welcome,” or “ceremonious speech.”

(Common Errors in English Usage)

Ngram: ceremonial vs ceremonious

Cerimonial:

  • c. 1400, "belonging to (religious) ritual," also as a noun, "a ceremonial practice," from Late Latin caerimonialis "pertaining to ceremony, " from caerimonia (see ceremony).

Ceremonious :

  • 1550s, from Middle French cérémonieux or directly from Late Latin caerimoniosus, from Latin caerimonia (see cerimony). Meaning "full of show and ceremony" is from 1610s.

Etymonline

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    +1 Yes. You give a fundamentally similar answer to that of @Fumble Fingers' comment. – WS2 Jul 3 '15 at 22:07
  • I didn't read his comment first, I just gave my answer. – user66974 Jul 4 '15 at 6:09
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    The meaning of two terms tend to overlap here: Ceremonious: Relating or appropriate to grand and formal occasions: "a Great Hall where ceremonious and public appearances were made" Ceremonial Relating to or used for formal religious or public events: "a ceremonial occasion". (ODO) – user66974 Jul 4 '15 at 6:35
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    My apologies. I didn't mean to imply that you had plagiarised @Fumble Fingers comment. I mentioned it just to indicate that another contributor of repute was saying something very similar to your good self. And yes you make a good point that there is overlap. – WS2 Jul 4 '15 at 7:43
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    @WS2: If I had been, I'd be perfectly happy to be plagiarised. And in fact, I'm more than happy in this case - partly because it agrees with my gut feeling, but mainly because Josh61 has made such a good job of locating and presenting credible references. I only looked at OED, where it would be more accurate to say there's nothing undermining the distinction as made here, but there's nothing explicitly supporting it either (Defn 5 under ceremonious is partly marked "obsolete", and that same sense matches Defn A2 under ceremonial, which is also thus flagged). – FumbleFingers Jul 4 '15 at 11:53

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