Firstly, I'd point out that as this is a slightly open-ended question I'm not certain how well it fits in with the guideline. I'm hoping that the fact there's a way to define an answer means that it is not necessarily wrong.

So, the question came to me after reading this article here: English is not normal. What stood out for me was how the author described that a method of judging the formality of what is being said is through the origin of the word used -- the author also brought two distinct examples ('help'/'aid'/'assist' and 'kingly'/'royal'/'regal') where the Old English > English word is the least formal of the possible options, the French word is the middle ground and the Latin derivation is the most formal.

What other pairs of this kind exist, and is this the best way of determining formality? Does this mean that the best way to make a statement less/more formal is replacing words with their synonyms based on the origin of the synonym (example: "Kingly help was given"/"Royal aid was presented"/"Regal assistance was provided")?

  • 5
    You asked for other pairs, but you didn't list pairs; you listed triplets. Setting aside the inappropriate solicitation that people chime in with lists of words and their opinions about their registers, had you read the article, it answers the only legitimate question you make quite clearly and explicitly. It says that you cannot measure the formal or informal register of a word merely based on word origin. It's not that cut and dry. Setting that aside, the article is little more than a litany of unsubstantiated, nonsensical malarkey. It's an interesting but complete conjecture. Jan 17, 2016 at 22:05
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    The best way of judging the formality of different words with similar meanings is to look at contexts where they're used (through Google Books, for example). The simplistic Latin:formal, French:normal, Anglo-Saxon:only for peasants is far too crude to be of much help in the real world. You'd probably get just as reliable results if you based your judgement soley on the number of letters in each word. Jan 17, 2016 at 22:16
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    @FumbleFingers: I'd give you +1000 for "Anglo-Saxon: only for peasants" if I could. And another thousand for "if you based your judgment solely on the number of letters in each word." Great stuff, dude!
    – Ricky
    Jan 17, 2016 at 22:18
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    @Ricky: I think it's a bit ott to say that article is "trashy". It seems pretty obvious to me the guy knows his onions (or whatever the Latin equivalent of that is! :) Anyway, I only glanced through it, but I like it - mainly because I see he mentions the cow:beef, pig:pork split, which I always think is an excellent example of how those bastard Norman overlords distorted our language by making us use their words for what they ate, where we had the mundane task of feeding, slaughtering, and cooking the animals for them (and doubtless gnawing the bones clean after they'd finished). Jan 17, 2016 at 22:26
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    That's actually a pretty good piece. It's obviously written in a style intended to ruffle the feathers of various categories of pedants and purists, but that helps keep it amusing. I didn't read anything in there that I could identify as blatantly false, but I'm sure that there are some details some people will violently disagree with. What fun!!
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 17, 2016 at 23:00

3 Answers 3


The pattern works pretty well for the often mentioned animal/food pairs. informal animal:sheep

The list of pairs or triples is endless. Just a handful:

  • land/country/nation
  • friendly/amiable
  • drink/beverage
  • wound/injury
  • room/chambre
  • woods/forest
  • child/infant/juvenile

This is good rule of thumb, but isn't absolutely perfect. There's hips (OE) and haunches (hips/legs, OFr) and ham (leg (of ham) OFr), where hips is the most formal of all of them. Ward (OE)/guard (OF), corner/angle, neck/collar, harvest/autumn all seem of the same formality

Another difference, in addition to formality, is the Anglo-Saxon is usually more concrete, the Romance more abstract.

The pattern also works well for legal or medical terms: theft/larceny, hand:manual, knee:genuflect, head:capital (and then Greek neologisms are created for even more synonyms).

But these technical medical terms are more likely to be technical neologisms well after 1066, by scientifically minded individuals rather than social language sharing via an invasion.


In terms of making statements less formal, you really have to take it case by case, but the Old-English word would be less formal in many cases (e.g., Holy Ghost versus Holy Spirit). In the case of kingly/royal/regal, the word royal has become far more common than kingly, so switching from the former to the latter would not make the sentence sound less formal. Another example is autumn(F) versus fall(OE). In that case, autumn is perhaps slightly more formal, but it is common enough in everyday usage that replacing it would have only a minor effect. In some cases, there are slight differences in how the French and OE versions of a word are used. You would not say, "Let's have cow for dinner!" That would sound ridiculous.


It's a great assertion, but shall we not firstly separate English dialects at the outset? Surely, North American English, British English, Aussie English, etc. assign different levels of formality to these very same words. "Kingly", to me, appears very archaic and therefore formal. I find that by ignoring cultural and geographical dimensions of the English language, you are really arriving at an incorrect conclusion (at least practically).

  • I think you have pointed out a very valid aspect of this question; I guess as living in Britain it is too natural to think of the 'correct' British (and, hence, the one being referred to) as the GB version. I wonder if one was to do as you have said and see what people thought, how would it vary between the various places. But, anecdotally, you say that "kingly" is the most formal due to its archaic root?
    – gktscrk
    Jun 14, 2017 at 10:13

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