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In my own idiolect, "fantastic" can mean "having fantasy elements" or, metaphorically, "very good," while "fantastical" can only have the literal sense. So, for instance, a fairy tale might be "fantastic" or "fantastical," with the latter likely being preferred, but a very good meal could only be described as "fantastic."

To my surprise, dictionary.com does not agree with me, simply listing "fantastical" as a variant form of "fantastic."

This doesn't seem right to me. Are there people who say "last night's meal was simply fantastical"? Is the distinction generational and not reflected by dictionaries? Is my usage pattern idiosyncratic and not well attested by other sources? In short, do most English speakers, or most English speakers of a certain age or region, distinguish between these words, or are they entirely interchangeable?

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  • There is a more general tag about "-ic" words vs. "-ical" words that I have added to your post; you might find some useful information in the answers to some of the other questions. – herisson Nov 9 '17 at 22:36
  • @sumelic Fair enough, but isn't it the case that almost all such pairs are interchangeable? I can't think of many other cases where I'd actively distinguish between the meanings of the two, although I can certainly think of many cases where one form or the other is much more common. – Casey Nov 9 '17 at 22:40
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    There are cases where they are not interchangeable, to a greater extent than "fantastic" / "fantastical." "Historic" and "historical" is a good example. – RaceYouAnytime Nov 9 '17 at 22:44
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Dictionary.com is oversimplifying in this case, but only by a little. The OED draws a clear distinction between the two words, despite many senses that directly overlap.

All of the non-obsolete senses of "fantastical" have equivalent senses under the headword "fantastic." But, as you posited in the question, there is one primary non-obsolete sense of "fantastic" that does not correlate with "fantastical."

A.7. In trivial use: excellent, good beyond expectation. colloq.

That's it, if we only examine senses that are in modern use. Archaic uses of each word are more expansive, but still, almost every definition of "fantastical" is cross-referenced to "fantastic" in the OED. Dictionary.com probably decided that the words were similar enough to be considered variants of the same headword.

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  • Is there any support for the idea that the form fantastical is somewhat preferred for literal uses of the word, or is the split more or less even? – Casey Nov 9 '17 at 22:48
  • Dictionaries seem divided on this. WordNet 3.0, Farlex clipart collection. © 2003-2012 Princeton University, Farlex has << Adj.1. fantastical - existing in fancy only ... unreal - lacking in reality or substance or genuineness; not corresponding to acknowledged facts or criteria ... 2. fantastical - ludicrously odd strange, unusual - being definitely out of the ordinary and unexpected; slightly odd or even a bit weird ... "a strange fantastical mind"... >>. I think 'fantastical' is rarefied anyway, and only a niche usage – Edwin Ashworth Nov 9 '17 at 22:49
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    @Casey I don't know of any evidence-based reason that one form would be preferred over another, though "fantastical" is a less frequently used word and more archaic. You might be able to form a logic-based argument that it's preferable when meaning "unreal" simply because "fantastic" is often associated with "excellent" and so using "fantastical" makes it clear to the reader that you don't mean "excellent." – RaceYouAnytime Nov 9 '17 at 22:57

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