Both of these words seem to mean much the same thing: working together to achieve some goal. I can instinctively feel a difference between them, but I can't easily put it into words.

Can you help me? Do these words come from different etymologies which might explain the difference?

7 Answers 7


Cooperating means working with someone in the sense of enabling: making them more able to do something (typically by providing information or resources they wouldn't otherwise have).

Collaborating means actually working alongside someone (from Latin laborare: to work) to achieve something.

The confusion comes from the overloaded meaning of "work with": In the "Work with me, people" sense, it means to go along with my idea - it's a passive condoning or suspension of disbelief rather than an active involvement. In the "I'm stuck, can you work with me on this problem?" sense it is a request for active commitment.

So in terms of helping achieve something, the ordering is something like collaboration, then cooperation, then passive indifference, then active obstruction.

  • Well, cooperari is "to work together with" which is the same as laborare "to work", if not stronger, so etymology does not justify. I do agree with your ordering as collaboration seems stronger than cooperation; but I would say that it is more due to fact that cooperation can be passive or non-interfering and collaboration is active. I think your definition of cooperating as enabling is a bit arbitrary (for example providing information or resources can be called collaboration, too).
    – Unreason
    Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 14:54
  • @Unreason Thank you for the etymology clarification. I really like @tastapod's examples (examples are always good!) so I'm marking this one as accepted.
    – Lunivore
    Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 19:14
  • This is a great answer. The latin etymology of "collaborate" was really helpful. It's obvious but I had never thought of it. I found this page because I had the same question as the OP, and this answer explained the difference.
    – ktm5124
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 15:17
  • Your answer starts with two definitions which differ in slight (and relatively useless) ways: "working" vs "actually working", "with" vs "alongside", and, the most useful difference, "making them more able" vs "to achieve." You almost reached what I think is the major distinction, which is the active/passive sense, with your paragraph about the confusion. Also, add "cooperate" and "collaborate" to that paragraph so it's clear which is which. Your ordering at the end is useful. Perhaps you and @Kristyne-van-skike will collaborate in perfecting each other's answer. Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 0:17

I think it has to do with ownership of the outcome. If you collaborate with me on a project, we have shared authorship. Cooperation could just mean that you've given me help on something I'm working on and that I'm ultimately responsible for.

  • I think you need to emphasize that the difference is slight" if you cooperate with me on the (whole) project, if the project is a cooperation, then responsibility and ownership is not so clearly separated. I agree that you can more easily say that there was cooperation than collaboration, and that the word collaboration implies (slightly) more involvement, but thats about it.
    – Unreason
    Commented Jun 6, 2011 at 8:49

If you start with etymologies, you can see that


also co-operate, c.1600, from L.L. cooperatus, pp. of cooperari "to work together with" (see cooperation). Related: Cooperated; cooperating.



1871, back formation from collaborator (1802), from Fr. collaborateur, from L. collaboratus, pp. of collaborare "work with," from com- "with" (see com-) + labore "to work" (see labor). Given a bad sense in World War II. Related: Collaborated; collaborating.

share the meaning coming from "to operate" and "to labor", whose meaning in the "co(m)-" sense is almost indistinguishable.

So, the actual usage is what distinguishes the two words; dictionary entries are almost the same, with the exception from the etymology, that collaborate took a specific meaning during WWII of "cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupation force in one's country."

Also, cooperate can be used for when someone is said to simply "be compliant" - without proactive involvement; where collaborate does imply a bit more active involvement ("cooperate" has slightly wider application, which might be directly related to the fact that the word started to be used almost two centuries before "collaborate").

  • Labour is, in the present-day English, generally not used for just any kind of working, but for working really, really hard. Some of that aspect of the word got carried over to collaborate, which makes it suited only for sustained, relatively long-term work with others.
    – jsw29
    Commented Feb 12 at 21:08

I agree that the distinction is "active" or "inactive" participation. People can "cooperate" with no action at all. Not true with "collaborate". I took a "Collaboration and Facilitation" class in college. We talked about the difference between "Cooperate" and "Collaborate" and felt it was distinct. For example, when facilitating a meeting where a group is trying to solve problems and make decisions, the goal is collaboration. We want each party to participate and come to a shared-ownership agreement. "Let's make decisions together." When someone only presents a solution, the other parties aren't part of the decision-making process so they are "cooperating". "Do you agree with this decision?"


All collaboration is cooperation but not all cooperation is collaboration.

The sense of collaboration comes from the Latin "labōrāre to work" and this was physical work and co -> together*.

The sense of cooperation comes from the the Latin "operārī" to work but this had less of the "physical aspect to it, rather a general "doing"*.

As a simple example, I can cooperate with you by doing nothing except ignore what you are doing, but should not be doing.

To collaborate, I would have to do something active.

*(See See 11. Lexical Functions (Vol.1) - De Gruyter https://www.degruyter.com › document › doi › pdf Operi [Lat. operāri '[to] do, carry out'] ... labōrāre '[to] work, toil'])


collaborate- different people working on the same project but in different areas in order to work towards a common goal.

co-operation -different people working on the same project but in the same areas in order to work towards a common goal. (or achieve a common goal )

  • 2
    Can you support this with some references and examples? As a short and unsupported answer, it will probably end up in the low quality review bucket. The highest rated answer so far basically contradicts your statements.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jun 14, 2016 at 4:34

Please allow a foreign amateur to propose a slightly different angle to the problem - timing. To me co-operation and co-laboration tastes like:

  • Laboration = 'work', is short term, while
  • Operation = business as usual, is ongoing and long term.

That would lead to cooperation being linked to "partnering" (for common long-term benefits), while collaboration is linked to "agreement" (like a contract for a common short-term benefit).

  • It's a cute idea, but that's not what the words mean. You can definitely cooperate for a short time, such as when enemies cooperate to prevent some disaster before going back to war immediately afterwards. In general you can't look at etymologies to decide current meaning. Commented Jul 28, 2014 at 10:42

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