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Which contains more liquid, something that is moist or something that is damp?

Context of question: This question was asked to a young friend of mine in her high school freshman English class. It was a bonus question on a test she was taking. My thoughts after looking at the definitions in my copy of Merriam Webster's was that both were perfect synonyms and that neither truly quantified the amount of liquid within an item.

As I thought on it a little more, I figured this would be a good question to ask on this site to see what those with more knowledge of the language would come up with.

  • 2
    Hi and welcome. What does the dictionary say? To include the definitions (and their ambiguity) are more conducive to helpful answers (like, "Neither." than asking the question without context. (Just fyi, this question can be closed for lack of research.) – anongoodnurse Nov 29 '15 at 2:58
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    @tchrist - Because the world is black and white, and language follows mathematical precision, of course. You surprise me. – anongoodnurse Nov 29 '15 at 3:00
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    I think that damp = 2(moist*pi*10^-23)/e – user85526 Nov 29 '15 at 9:32
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    @GeorgePompidou 10^-23 amounts to almost zero! So your saying that moist is much wetter, aren't you?! ;) – Færd Nov 29 '15 at 9:46
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    @medica, I added a little more context to the question for you. I found this very interesting that it was being asked in a high school English class yet I could not come up with a good answer to the question. That is why I thought it would be good for this site. – LWhitson2 Nov 29 '15 at 13:01

10 Answers 10

75

damp:
slightly wet, often in an unpleasant way:

moist:
slightly wet, especially in a way that is pleasant or suitable

The same soil would be moist and damp at the same time: moist for planting seeds, and damp for sitting on.

This is the Word Choice note given by Longman Dictionary:

WORD CHOICE:

damp, moist, humid

Use damp especially to say that something is slightly wet in an unpleasant way:
• The room was cold and damp.

Use moist to say that something is slightly wet in a pleasant way or in the way it should be:
• She took a mouthful of the delicious moist cake.
• rich, moist soil

Use humid to talk about the weather or the air when it is slightly wet and makes you feel uncomfortable:
• the hot humid atmosphere of a greenhouse

Source: Longman Dictionary

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    Also use "moist" when you really want to annoy the seemingly large number of people who have a serious issue with the word. – Anthony Grist Nov 29 '15 at 23:50
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    @AnthonyGrist this, I was actually taken aback when I saw "moist" and "pleasant" in the same sentence. – DasBeasto Nov 30 '15 at 19:16
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    May those who have a problem with the word "moist" be cursed never to enjoy anything moist. – R.. Nov 30 '15 at 21:03
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    @R that is a curse moist vile. – terdon Nov 30 '15 at 23:22
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    I agree with this answer – who would want to eat a damp cake? – and would add/suggest that "moist" is more likely to be associated with warmth, and "damp" with cold. And though there seems to be some dispute as to whether, quantity-of-water-wise, there's any difference between the two words, in my "damp cake" example, I think the cake could be on the verge of soggy. – RJH Dec 1 '15 at 6:43
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As a counterpoint to the definitions that appear in Fard's answer (by way of Longman's Dictionary, I offer these definitions from Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

damp adj. {ME, black damp, fr. MD or MLG, vapor; akin to OHG damph vapor} (1590) 1 a archaic : being confused, bewildered, or shocked : STUPEFIED b : DEPRESSED, DULL 2 : slightly or moderately wet : MOIST {a damp towel} also : HUMID {damp weather}

...

moist adj. {ME moiste, fr. AF, perh. fr. VL muscidus, alter. of L mucidus slimy, fr. mucus nasal mucus} (14c) 1 : slightly or moderately wet : DAMP 2 : TEARFUL 3 : characterized by high humidity

The Eleventh Collegiate also includes this usage note under the entry for wet:

DAMP implies a slight or moderate absorption and often connotes an unpleasant degree of moisture {clothes will mildew if stored in a damp place}. ... MOIST applies to what is slightly damp or not felt as dry {treat the injury with moist heat}.

So the main entries for the two words give the relevant definition of damp as "slightly or moderately wet : MOIST" and the relevant definition of moist as "slightly or moderately wet : DAMP." Those are about as close to interchangeable definitions as you can find in Merriam-Webster. The usage note comparing the two words does note that some senses of damp involve unpleasant or uncomfortable settings, but it doesn't draw a sharp, categorical contrast between unpleasant wet (damp) and pleasant or suitable wet (moist).

In U.S. usage a damp towel is neither more nor less pleasant than a moist towel—and many other instances exist where damp and moist might be used interchangeably without significantly different connotations. UK usage may be different, but for the United States I don't think that a definite difference in wetness is implicitly understood as between damp and moist.

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    This distinction corresponds to my own intuition as a native English speaker and translator. Damp sounds more like a more pervasive, deep-seated moisture. – Leni Nawocam Nov 29 '15 at 10:02
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    I carried out searches in COCA for damp and moist , comparing about 50 sentences and their contexts. If it wasn't off topic and I wasn't so lazy, I would add the (lengthy) result to my answer. I must admit that damp is not condemned to have an unpleasant connotation, and was used in a fair number of the sentences just to mean "somewhat wet". But overall, there was a fair amount of evidence in support of Longman's theory. I invite you to do the same and inform me if I'm wrong. P.S. This is a half-joke, but for one thing you don't use dampener to treat your skin; you use moisturizer. – Færd Nov 29 '15 at 10:04
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    @Fard: Moreover, you don't (in U.S. usage) compliment a baker for having produced a "damp" cake; but thanks to years of Duncan-Hines cake mix ads, you might be tempted to praise him or her for having produced a "moist cake." There certainly are areas of non-overlap (such as that one) in usage between the two adjectives. My answer cites Merriam-Webster's definitions primarily to dispute the inference a reader might draw from the Longman's definitions that a categorical black-and-white difference along the lines of "damp bad; moist good" is widely enforced in U.S. usage. ... – Sven Yargs Nov 29 '15 at 18:55
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    Longman says "damp" is often used in an unpleasant way (much like M-W's usage note cited in your answer), and "moist" is used especially for pleasant or suitable situations, so It's not a black-and-white categorization. You see, it's a matter of corpus-based statistics: wet is neutral because people use it equally for good and bad cases, while damp and moist are (generally) likelier to be used in pleasant and unpleasant situations respectively. Neither one has an inherent bias toward good or bad. – Færd Nov 30 '15 at 4:34
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    I might as well add this tiny reflection of mine: Why can I say "my hair is damp", but not "my hair is moist"? I don't think damp is used only to imply unpleasantness: "damp hair", "damp clothes", "damp shoes" etc. tell me that these things have been effected externally, i.e. soaked from the outside. A moist cake has absorbed liquid and has not been over-baked. Frogs have moist or clammy skins, rarely damp skins, their thin skins absorb water internally. – Mari-Lou A Dec 1 '15 at 7:51
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The OED Online, in an entry for 'moist' updated for the third edition, September 2002, addresses the issue directly, if somewhat hesitantly:

A. adj. 1. a. Slightly wet, imbued with moisture; containing liquid in a state of suspension or absorption; not dry; damp, humid.

In many contexts now differing from damp by having a neutral (sometimes, esp. with reference to the texture of food, good) rather than a negative sense, and in connoting a lesser degree of wetness. In early use the word had a wider application.

(Bold emphasis mine.)

The note concerning the greater degree of wetness connoted ("in many contexts") by 'moist' was added in the 2002 update. The note in the second edition (1989) was

Now differing from damp in having no tendency to imply either an undesirable or a merely temporary or casual condition. In early use the word had a wider application.

The three historical quotes from the 1900s given for the cited definition of 'moist' are from a US author (1901), an Australian author (1972), and the Toronto Star (Canadian, 1993). These quotes have no explicit bearing on the aforementioned observation concerning the "lesser degree of wetness" connoted by 'moist'.

  • +1 this matches how I've always understood it - "moist" being just damp enough to be noticeable to touch, "damp" being sufficiently moist to moisten other things that come in contact with it, contaminating them with dampness. – user56reinstatemonica8 Dec 1 '15 at 12:08
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The word "moist" has a visceral effect that is not shared with "damp". Moist and damp object have, as noted in dictionaries "slight wetness", and to this extent they are synonymous. However "moist" also has a meaning in medicine of "Marked by fluid discharge". You could describe some something in with liquid on the surface as "moist".

While the dictionaries note that dampness is unpleasant, moistness has been called the most hated word, especially among younger people. This seems to be a recent development, with older people happy to describe a cake as moist, with a positive sense. However moistness seems to have picked up sexual connotations and senses of rankness, that have made the word one to be avoided, when a relatively neutral term such as damp is available. There are words with a negative sense that dont carry the same visceral impact, such as "soggy".

As an aside, the word "rank", meaning foetid or gross, went through a similar change in meaning, changing from luxuriant, to overripe to its modern meaning. Moist may develop in the same way.

  • This is all interesting, but does it answer the question? Unlike forums, this is a question and answer site. the entire post can be deleted as "not an answer." Please have a look at the site tour and visit the help center for guidance on how to use this site. – anongoodnurse Nov 29 '15 at 9:39
  • Edited to focus on the question. – James K Nov 29 '15 at 10:04
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    I'll happily disagree with the idea that "moist" has a greater visceral effect. Probably it's more prominent because of its (still largely positive) association with the body, and so it gets more focus. But if one were to survey the public with the question "would you rather be damp or moist", I doubt "damp" would win. In any event "damp" seems more applicable to a diaper, or to clothes that one would prefer to change. Further, I know people who would gag at the thought of "soggy" anything, e.g. sandwiches, pizza crust, etc. Apply it to the body and you're finished! – RJH Dec 1 '15 at 5:55
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Dictionary definitions and other literary analyses aside, my personal connotative impression finds damp as just slightly wetter than moist.

Specifically, a damp washcloth will tend to leave a small puddle behind when picked up, and probably drip as well; a moist washcloth will do neither, but the moisture can still be felt by touch. Add a little more water to the moist washcloth and it will become damp.

  • My personal connotations are the opposite – Mitch Mar 8 '18 at 23:45
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The Oxford English Dictionary has as one of its definitions for damp

To make moist or humid, to wet as steam, vapour, mist, or dew does; to moisten.

The Oxford English Dictionary also has as one of its definitions of moist as:

Of a season, climate, etc.: Wet; rainy; having some rain; having a considerable rainfall.

So perhaps moist is wetter as having a considerable rainfall is much wetter than mist or dew

And further more, it defines moisten (which damp is defined as doing) as:

To make or render moist, damp, or wet; to wet superficially or moderately

So that seems to prove damp is only wet superficially or moderately where as moist can be much more so.

  • Your willingness to edit is impressive, :) Welcome! – anongoodnurse Nov 29 '15 at 9:20
  • +1. I think this is the only relevant answer so far. – Færd Nov 29 '15 at 10:15
  • Can't edit out only two apostrophes, but it's means it is, whereas its means belonging to it. Common misconception! – Tim Nov 29 '15 at 17:09
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    @Tim Thanks for the heads up! Edited accordingly. :) – Paul Evans Nov 29 '15 at 17:46
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    @medica Cheers mate - it's(!) great to be mentored! :)))) OED Mentor: The name of the Ithacan noble whose disguise the goddess Athene assumed in order to act as the guide and adviser of the young Telemachus. – Paul Evans Nov 29 '15 at 22:57
1

In my opinion, the degree of wetness is the same for damp and moist: appropriate to cause the word's use. In my experience, fathering two girls, I used damp to describe a moist diaper and wet to describe a much soggier one. When wiping the kitchen counter with a damp cloth, I had to first moisten it. I know the technical answer has been given, and I don't disagree with it; but usage develops our choice.

0

Well, though their definitions do not make clear a difference in degree, damp notes unpleasantness, which, more often that not, would have more liquid that a pleasant amount. The words themselves, however, do not differentiate.

0

Looking at this question denotatively, the words both define to (more or less) "slightly wet".

Given this we must then determine the question to be answered connotatively. When we look at the usage of the action to dampen and the usage of the action to moisten, then often times dampening something (such as a towel) would require more water than to moisten something (such as the mouth).

However, given that this is more of a gray area question, it is much more likely the professor was looking for a stance and defense to show critical thinking than an ultimatum.

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The answer from fard covers all formal aspects for the answer. It also supports my thoughts:

I would use damp in contexts describing solid matter. eg a towel, whereas I would use moist in contexts describing gaseous matter. e.g. air.

With that, from a Physics's point of view I would say damp is more wet.

  • The problem with opinion is that that's all it is. In the US, one can buy moist towelettes anywhere. Moist cake is better than dry. A damp basement is the pits. The exceptions to your examples are very numerous. – anongoodnurse Nov 29 '15 at 9:11
  • @medica The question is: wich one is more wet. So your comment supports my point of view. – Nils Nov 29 '15 at 11:20
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    You stated damp for solids (a towel) and moist for air. How did my two solid moists and a damp airspace support your point of view? They do not. It's all still only your opinion, and now your misinterpretation of my comment. – anongoodnurse Nov 29 '15 at 11:59

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