There's a heated thread currently brewing over on MSE:

How can an older question be marked as a duplicate of a newer one?

In that thread, I made the argument that the culture and mechanics of StackExchange certainly make [the situation described above] possible.

In response, the OP raised a linguistic question:

Really, so you think that a question asked years before hand can be a dup? You obviously do not know what duplicate means, I suggest buying a dictionary.

Now, my question is, leaving aside StackExchange specific details, can a duplicate antedate the thing that it is a copy of?

Merriam-Webster defines duplicate thus:

1: consisting of or existing in two corresponding or identical parts or examples
- duplicate invoices
2: being the same as another
- duplicate copies.

Which does seem to suggest, especially sense 2, that duplicate simply means copy, and and if you have two identical objects, each qualifies as a legitimate duplicate of the other. No sense of chronological preference is mentioned, nor priority of "the original".

So, in general English usage and pragmatics, can a duplicate antedate its twin? Are there any useful quotes or corpora analyses which can establish usage one way or another?


NB: This is an question of English and its answers or resolutions have absolutely no bearing on StackExchange, its protocols, or its proper use. Deciding those things is what MSE is for, not ELU. Do not argue about or even bring up StackExchange rules here, in answers or in comments. Mods: please delete any MSE content on sight.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Apr 3 '17 at 13:04

You can argue about etymology, logic, precise definitions in dictionaries, etc., but at the end of the day a word can obviously be used the way people use it. Take:

I went through my stamp album and removed a few duplicates

You wouldn't normally assume I cared about making sure I kept the oldest one of each duplicated stamp. Anyway, I could proffer two stamps, saying These are duplicates. Which one do you want? Certainly no-one would study the date franks and say That's the original, and this is the duplicate!


In case it's not obvious, duplicate has two closely-related senses - is the same as, and is a copy of.

I don't suppose anyone has ever deliberately copied an existing query (verbatim, paraphrased, or whatever) on SO just so they could see whether and how quickly it got closed as a duplicate. Hence it stands to reason in such contexts it's same, not copy. The idea that the later one must always be labelled as the offending "duplicate" just comes from woolly thinking that could make us drag in concepts of credit for being "first".

  • 3
    Perfect example. You'd probably go through and remove the lower quality, worn-out, older stamps (I don't know, I'm not an philatelist) – marcellothearcane Apr 2 '17 at 17:21
  • @marcellothearcane: Nor me. I used to collect coins, but any duplicates there would always have the same date anyway. I've still got over a hundred 1912H pennies (H = minted by Heaton under contract, 'cos the Royal Mint couldn't make enough that year), but they're all hopelessly worn and prolly not even worth their (defunct) face value. – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '17 at 17:36
  • But we do give credit for being first when two songs resemble each other, for example. – michael.hor257k Apr 2 '17 at 20:36
  • Context is as always paramount. On ELU, 'duplicate' almost always means 'original. of which this is an exact or very close copy'. When showing a blackmail victim compromising photographs, 'duplicates' means 'not the originals, which I've left with reliable acolytes who will phone me in three hours'. In other contexts, most usually the 'not the originals' sense. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 2 '17 at 21:43
  • In the context of being a dup on SO, it states down the bottom of the question marked duplicate, This question has been asked before and already has an answer. How can it already have answers if the question it is being linked as a duplicate will not been asked for another year? – KyloRen Apr 3 '17 at 2:01

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