I am studying the difference between "rich" and "wealthy".

According to the dictionary they can both be adjectives meaning having a lot of money or nouns meaning the type of people.

I have read online that rich people only have money while wealthy people in addition know how to make money.

Is it like that?

  • Can't support this with research, hence merely a comment. Referring to money, to say "He is wealthy" is considered more "refined" (by people who want to be refined) than to say "He is rich." – ab2 Dec 18 '16 at 17:39
  • And what about affluent? – Mari-Lou A Dec 18 '16 at 20:26
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    You could give various easily obtained definitions of both words and pull out overlaps and apparent differences to show personal research. – Edwin Ashworth Dec 18 '16 at 23:35
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    To paraphrase the great comedian, Chris Rock - the star basketball player on a big contract in the NBA is rich. The guy who pays him is wealthy. – Laconic Droid Dec 19 '16 at 2:57
  • Note that both words are often used in (different) figurative senses. – Hot Licks Jan 19 '17 at 12:26

It's the nature of this kind of question to get a lot of answers focusing on the differences. So to counterbalance that: I'd like to tell you that these words are, in fact, very close synonyms.

When they are used with their literal senses to refer to people, there is no simple distinction in what they denote like the one you read online. For most people, the idea of a contrast between "the rich" and "the wealthy" would seem to be an oxymoron.

That doesn't necessarily mean these words are always interchangeable, but the factors governing which can be used are more complicated than just a matter of easily-described distinct meanings. Similarly, while there are differences in connotation, neither one will always be taken to be more appropriate/upper-class than the other.

The source you read, Rich or Wealthy (an editorial by Tom Wheelwright), does define these as referring to two distinct types of people. But this definition, even though it might look like a normal dictionary definition, is not actually a description of how people use these words. It's a rhetorical definition. The author wants to describe some significant difference he sees between two types of people who are normally classified in one group. To describe this difference, he resorts to taking two words that are normally synonymous, and more-or-less inventing a distinction between them that corresponds to the distinction that he wants to talk about. After all, the introductory sentence—" It seems to me that there is a big difference between being rich and being wealthy"—would not make for a very strong "hook" if all native speakers distinguished the meanings of these words in actual usage. It's supposed to make readers think "What? These words are synonyms! There is no big difference between them!" and want to keep on reading to learn the supposed difference between them.

Differences in actual usage

"Rich" is more common than "wealthy"

Here's the Google Ngram Viewer chart:

enter image description here

This suggests that in general, if you're unsure which word would be better, you should go for "rich".

"Rich" has more general meanings that can apply to inanimate nouns

As Mick mentioned, one of the clearest actually observed distinctions is that "rich" can be applied to foods, or other inanimate objects, in ways that "wealthy" can't. "Rich" foods are those that are very filling, dense or fatty (possibly overly so); we can't say "wealthy foods". Another metaphorical use of "rich", applied to inanimate nouns, is to mean something like "abundant" or "fertile": you can say something like "the artist's painting was rich in meaning".

In some colloquial contexts, especially in predicate position, "wealthy" sounds bad

I need to research this more, since I can't explain it very well yet. But as an example, "I'm gonna be rich!" sounds much more natural than "I'm gonna be wealthy". Note that this does not mean that "rich" is only used in colloquial speech.

Supposed/proposed more philosophical distinctions

wealthy = "know how to make and keep money" vs. rich = "just has money"

You mention that idea that “rich people only have money while wealthy people in addition know how to make money”. I think there's some small kernel of truth to the distinction made in the article you read, but it's not observed by everyone.

I think these words can sometimes imply this, but it's not a core feature of how these words are defined. Its an additional implication that exists in some contexts, or for some speakers.

I think this definition seems like how people who consider themselves “wealthy” but not “rich” would define the terms. Note that this definition relies on a worldview where some people “know” how to make money (rather than having money because of inheritance, luck, or other external circumstances), so you’re especially likely to encounter definitions like this in contexts where people want to distinguish their “how-to-become-wealthy” advice as more legitimate than “get-rich-quick” advice.

My issue with this definition is as follows. When a speaker describes someone else using the adjective “wealthy”, I don’t think it’s safe to assume the speaker means to imply “that person knows how to make money”. In my experience, the speaker may just mean “that person has a lot of money”.

For example:

“Not one member attended Anne Henderson’s wedding to von Korber, and the once wealthy heiress was destined to spend a life that at times fringed on poverty.” (Canadians in Golden Age Hollywood: 2-Book Bundle, by Charles Foster)

In this sentence, I don’t think the author meant to imply that Anne Henderson used to know how to make money, but later in her life somehow lost this knowledge. It just means she used to have a lot of money, and then lost most of it.

"rich" = high-income vs. "wealthy" = possess much wealth/assets

Actually, I found another source that gives a different, although in some ways similar definition.

The Graduate Student's Question: Before the Last Tree, by Walter L. Battaglia, says

The important distinction between the rich and wealthy is this: "rich" usually refers to income while "wealthy" refers to accumulation or property. Thus, to be rich is to have a high income, whether or not one possesses anything. To be wealthy is to be in possession, whether or not those holdings produce income. [...] The wealthy were always perceived as more secure than the rich, as long as they didn't waste their Estates. The rich can be quickly deprived of income. (p. 240)

I said "in some ways similar" because this account seems to agree with Wheelwright about "wealthy" being a more secure state than "rich". But it contrasts with Wheelwright about what the state of being "wealthy" actually looks like. Wheelwright paints a picture where, whatever assets you start out with, you can achieve this stability with the right attitude and know-how:

  • Once you know how to make money, you can build sustainable wealth. The money never stops coming. If you have a reversal of fortune, it's not a big deal. You just make it back.

And contrastingly, people who just become "rich" through inheritance are, according to Wheelwright, not necessarily "wealthy" because they may squander their wealth.

Battaglia on the other hand seems to have the viewpoint that possessing property, even if it doesn't guarantee security, will still naturally confer more security than just getting a high paycheck.

My summary

In general, people inclined to draw fine distinctions seem to feel that it is proper to use "wealthy" to denote a more stable state than "rich", which is seen as implying a more "easy-come, easy-go" state of affairs. However, there doesn't seem to be a consensus on the exact nature of the difference. Some people think it is appropriate to use "wealthy" to refer to people with the stability supposedly conferred by the possession of lots of property, while others think it is appropriate to use "wealthy" to refer to people who possess personal qualities or virtues that supposedly enable them to consistently do well financially.

A minor note on parts of speech

By the way, I believe that many modern linguists would say neither of these word are ever nouns. That's the kind of conflation of word class and grammatical function that dictionaries often exhibit. "The wealthy" and "the rich", like "the poor", can be used as plural noun phrases, but the words are still adjectives in this context. One piece of evidence for this is that despite being plural, they don't take the regular nominal plural suffix -(e)s. A more detailed argument against interpreting these words as nouns can be found in the following paper: "The rich, the poor, the obvious: Arguing for an ellipsis analysis of 'adjectives used as nouns'", by Christine Günther.

To be fair, Günther does say that other linguists have analyzed such cases as conversion from adjective to noun, so the dictionaries could just be considered to be following an old-fashioned analysis. Here's another overview of the matter I found on Google Books in "Hectic, Hippic and Hygienic: Adjectives in Victorian Fiction: A Semantic Analysis" by Chris Kunze.

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  • At least to me, there's a difference in how money is handled. 'Rich' just means having a lot of money, while 'wealthy' implies that one's wealth is invested productively, and so the wealthy person lives off the produce of his wealth. For a current example, Warren Buffett might be considered wealthy, Donald Trump merely rich. – jamesqf Dec 18 '16 at 20:15
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    @jamesqf: Maybe, but I don't really get that implication from "wealthy", and I don't really think it's a clear distinction for everyone else either. – herisson Dec 18 '16 at 20:20
  • @jamesqf: for example, the title of the following book: "The Wealthy Writer" seems to refer to making money from writing. I don't feel it especially implies making enough money from writing to be able to stop writing and live on income from investments. – herisson Dec 18 '16 at 20:22
  • That's rich!!!! – Hot Licks Sep 27 '17 at 22:34

In 1950s Britain, the linguist Alan Ross and (later) the novelist and biographer Nancy Mitford popularized the notion of U and non-U speech. The U stands for upper-class, and the contention was that certain word usages, and certain pronunciations, unfailingly betray the speaker's background.

In many cases, upper-class Brits use simpler, more direct words, especially for "touchy" subjects, than lower-class Brits (and North Americans) do.

So, upper-class Brits say "loo," never "W.C." or (heaven forbid!) a coy euphemism like "little girl's room."

Similarly, upper-class Brits speak of people who are "rich," a good solid word from Old English. They do not say "wealthy," as they consider it a non-U euphemism.

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  • Hello, joc. This sounds good, but to quote choster: 'Rather than personal opinion and anecdotes, we value descriptive explanations which include appropriate references [(quotes with links)] and examples. I strongly encourage you to take the site tour and review the help center for a better understanding of Stack Exchange and how it operates. ' – Edwin Ashworth Sep 27 '17 at 19:01
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    In 1956, wealthy was non-U and rich was U. See Independent. Sure-fire test, what does Hyancith Bucket say? (Hyacinth pronounces Bucket as Bouquet). – ab2 Sep 27 '17 at 21:36
  • "wealthy", although a more recent word than "rich", is still formed entirely out of morphemes from Old English ("well/weal", from OE wyl/wel/well/wæl or wela/weola/weala, + "-th", from the OE suffix -þ-, + "-y", from the OE suffix -ig) – herisson Sep 27 '17 at 21:45
  • Oh dear, oh dear, Edwin Ashworth. Stack Exchange is clearly not the site for me. Takes itself with deadly seriousness, does it? Ta ta, then. – joc Sep 29 '17 at 9:54

With this kind of question, where the meaning of two words appears to be the same, it is a good idea to look at the etymologies (original sources) of the words. In the case of rich and wealth, we have:

rich (adj.)

Old English: rice "strong, powerful; great, mighty; of high rank"

wealth (n.)

mid-13c., "happiness," also "prosperity in abundance of possessions or riches," from Middle English wele "well-being"

Online Etymology Dictionary

So we can see that, in the past, wealth had more to do with happiness and well-being than it does now, where wealth has just become a synonym for economic prosperity; and rich had more to do with strength and power. Interestingly, rich still has the connotation of strength when we speak of rich food. It doesn't mean expensive food.

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    I’m not sure the etymologies really give much insight into the current usage of these two words. I wouldn’t consider wealthy to have anything more to do with happiness and well-being than rich does in current English. To me, it’s simply a matter of just how much money you have: rolling in it > rich > wealthy > well off/well-to-do > average. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Dec 18 '16 at 13:38
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    Yet George Bailey is toasted as "the richest man in town" on account of a wealth of friends, not financial assets; so spiritual wealth can also warrant application of the adjective rich. – Brian Donovan Dec 18 '16 at 15:09
  • Etymology aside, "wealth" = "happy" is sufficiently current that I ran into this usage on Quora yesterday. – Morgen Dec 26 '16 at 0:51

Rich is property expressing quantities or an amount of something relative to some other tangible or intangible property. As a descriptor, as a property, it is not tangible but has a one-to-one relationship with something that can be expressed as a quantity of some one thing and usually much of it. Wealth expresses a value or can refer to things that relative another thing or things are representative of value, and that relation, as all relations are, is not a tangible.

Strictly speaking: One is rich with [things] or [Things] make one rich

Even in common use it is a thing that is used to convey richness. "Oh look at this gold plated ballroom, Mr Lodge is so rich". This takes the apparent quantity therefore large cost of material (that represent a large amount of money, but as an amount) as the things with which Lodge is rich.

One might say, though, that Lodge is wealthy in terms of being able to afford such things, which albeit an assumption and may very well be misguided, where afford relates (a presumably high) cost of ownership to the presumption of Lodge having possibly a lot more than that (at least he has that amount) which if in the possession of the speaker would make the speaker "rich" and is an amount that thus represents great wealth to the speaker. So while the friends of Lodge might consider his fortune inferior to theirs (in which case they would not consider him categorically wealthy but might, and probably conversationally intend this, agree that relative to the bracket represented by the Coopers he is in fact wealthy—in either case, however, where objects and things of value are concerned even his wealthier friends could ostensibly agree that Lodge is rich.

In common use they're used interchangeably but there are somethings that just don't work and are too awkward: "What rich carving" about a table can adequately and nearly with universal comprehension express a quality of dense carvings in the table. "Such wealthy carvings" does not in that context have any meaning and is a bit absurd (there probably is some case where it might make sense like an archeological dig, but still it would be awkward). "His wealth is his knowledge" is pretty descriptive and meaningful in context about someone's qualities as perceived by the person making the description, and as such a compliment. but to say "he has a lot of knowledge and that is his richness" is pretty clumsy, sure, but also phrased any other way one can not be completely sure as to the meaning; the statement "his knowledge is so rich" is an acceptable statement that reflects the speaker believes the person he is describing knows a lot (itself relative to other things, but acceptable usually). "His knowledge is so wealthy" would also be meaningful in that in describes the qualities of the enumeration of knowledge units.

A single object that costs a lot (a Baccarat vase for example) can make someone potentially rich in your opinion as an expression of dollars to object or the cost of that vase to your paycheck and mine every month. But it may not make that person, even if they bought it themselves, relative the other things they have bought and anything else they are able to buy in our opinion wealthy.

I think i jumbled things up at the end a bit? Maybe not? Does it all make sense though…?

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