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I'd never heard about "to sow" until recently, and I was quite surprised that I couldn't find even a connotation about the difference in meaning from "to seed."

The German word "säen" is translated with both "to seed" and "to sow", neither of them are marked dialect or old-fashioned or anything.

Wiktionary defines them as:

  1. to seed: To plant or sow an area with seeds.
  2. to sow: To scatter, disperse, or plant (seeds).

As a non-native speaker, I fail to see the difference here (especially when one is defined using the other).

In this sense, can they be used interchangeably?

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    Please include the research you’ve done. Questions that can be at least initially addressed using commonly-available references should show signs of such research. Nov 24, 2017 at 11:25
  • There aren't many situations in which they can be used interchangeably.
    – psmears
    Nov 24, 2017 at 11:42
  • @psmears ... I'm sure you're right that they're less likely to be interchangeable than not, but I can think of at least a few examples where either verb would do. "To sow/seed a lawn", for example. Nov 24, 2017 at 12:35
  • @ArchContrarian: Yeah, that's why I didn't go for "never" :-) But in general they mostly take a different sort of object (for the most part "sow" takes the "seed" - literal or metaphorical - being sown, and "seed" takes the location they're being planted in), and both (especially "sow") are mostly used transitively. But as you point out, there are some exceptions :-)
    – psmears
    Nov 24, 2017 at 15:37
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    "to seed" also is used metaphorically outside of plants. For example, "to seed clouds" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cloud_seeding) or also in IT you can talk about seeding in the sense of providing material for a program/function to use or in p2p networks en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seeding_(computing)
    – SonOfPingu
    Nov 27, 2017 at 11:05

5 Answers 5

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No, they can't always be used interchangeably. To sow seeds is to put or spread them where you want them to grow, or you can speak of sowing a particular type of plant. You can seed a patch of ground (sow seeds on it), but 'seed' as a verb can also mean to produce seeds (of a plant), to remove the seeds from a fruit, as well as the various metaphorical uses mentioned by user067531.

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  • Also, you can sow an idea, but you can't seed an idea. Sep 19, 2019 at 1:29
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I would just point out that while you can "sow the seeds", you should not "seed the sows".

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    'You should not "seed the sows".' Unless you're a boar.
    – Mick
    Nov 24, 2017 at 12:17
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I think that one main difference is the financial/tech usage of seed vs sow:

  1. Transitive To seed (Wiktionary) :

To start; to provide, assign or determine the initial resources for, position of, state of.

A venture capitalist seeds young companies.
The tournament coordinator will seed the starting lineup with the best competitors from the qualifying round.
The programmer seeded fresh, uncorrupted data into the database before running unit tests.

The usage in sports, especially in tennis, is also worth mentioning.

  1. To be able to compete (especially in a quarter-final/semi-final/final).
    The tennis player seeded into the quarters+tennis.

Sporting (originally tennis) sense (1898) is from notion of spreading certain players' names so as to ensure they will not meet early in a tournament. (Etymonline)

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  • Good point! I was thinking only about gardening/farming.
    – Mick
    Nov 24, 2017 at 8:39
  • @Mick That's why I asked. I mainly know "seeding" from its technical usage. But then I recently got a card game with an agricultural focus, and all of a sudden "sowing" popped up ;)
    – awendt
    Nov 24, 2017 at 8:42
  • Quoting without correctly attributing may leave you open to copyright infringement actions, and is certainly unwelcome on ELU. Wiktionary, I believe. Nov 24, 2017 at 11:29
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Technically speaking, there are crops whose seeds are planted in a straight row (e.g.: sunflower and corn) and crops whose seeds are scattered in the field (e.g.: wheat and barley), hence the two different terms in agriculture...

Hope this helps

Guido

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    Hello, Guido. Thanks for sharing your expertise. I think that, for such common terms, more 'technical' (specifying) definitions are for once justified. But, as Lexico, for instance, defines 'sow' thus: plant (seed) by scattering it on or in the earth and RHK Webster's defines 'seed': ... (16) to sow or scatter (seed) , [bolding mine] you need to give supporting references for these specialised usages. May 22, 2020 at 10:43
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There are certain contexts where the verb seed is more appropriate than sow. One example is seeding rainclouds. Here, what is being scattered in the raincloud is not seeds, but crystals of some chemical that serves as a nucleus for a water droplet.

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