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I've always thought that "plethora" was closer to "a large number" while "surfeit" denoted a clear excess of something. Indeed, the google defines plethora as "a large or excess amount" while surfeit is "an excessive amount of something".

So, is the general consensus that a surfeit is more than a plethora or is that just my distinction?

I've recently started getting quizzical looks when I use the phrase "we have a plethora --- one might even say a surfeit --- of X". But maybe the looks are because nobody really talks like that, rather than my uncommon understanding of the meaning of those words!

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    People may look at you funny because they think you're making a movie reference; this is certainly MY first association with "plethora": Three Amigos. Plethora also has a medical meaning: an excess of blood in an organ. This is the pseudo-scientific condition for which barber-surgeons used to bleed patients. – MT_Head Aug 2 '18 at 17:50
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    @MT_Head -- +1 for the definitive usage of the word Plethora! – Roger Sinasohn Aug 2 '18 at 18:11
  • the last place to dumb down' the use of both of these fine English words is here at ELL. Use them as much as u like! – lbf Aug 2 '18 at 18:15
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    @MT_Head I, on the other hand, cannot help but think of "a plethora of exotic mandibles" from Ren & Stimpy. – Hellion Aug 2 '18 at 18:28
  • Thanks, everyone! All the answers were great, but I chose JoshG's for the example of a surfeit not being a plethora. – jchrist Aug 3 '18 at 0:31
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My answer isn't based on research but rather on experience. Plethora denotes a lot of something, while surfeit indicates that you have more than you need. It is, of course, possible to have a surfeit of something without having a plethora of it. For instance, if you lived with one other person and never had company, if you had 4 steak knives, you'd have a surfeit, though not exactly a plethora, of them.

With regard to quizzical looks, know your audience. If they tend to speak in a more common way, if you want to fit in, surfeit and plethora probably aren't your friends, unless you are joking around and speaking in an affected way for laughs.

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I have no scientific evidence, but I am fairly confident that unless you hang out mainly in the Pedants Corner of some English faculty, the quizzical looks are because not many people use 'plethora' or 'surfeit' in conversation. A plethora of something historically just meant an excess, and still does in medical terminology, when talking about bodily fluids, especially blood. Oxford Dictionaries says:

Strictly, a plethora is not just an abundance of something, it is an excessive amount. However, the new, looser sense is now so dominant that it must be regarded as part of standard English.

Plethora

Surfeit just means an excess of something.

Surfeit

  • I see nothing wrong with using elegant words, provided you use them properly. In professional company (to which I would expect subscribers to this site to aspire) it would, in my view, be quite normal to employ those such as "plethora" and "surfeit". The OED would seem to confirm that "plethora" does indicate an excess. However, I would have to say, that as a native speaker it does not suggest "excess" to me, simply that there was a very large number/amount. "Surfeit" clearly indicates excess. – WS2 Aug 2 '18 at 21:48
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According to the Oxford Dictionaries:

Usage

Strictly, a plethora is not just an abundance of something, it is an excessive amount. However, the new, looser sense is now so dominant that it must be regarded as part of standard English

Oxford also lists surfeit as a synonym. (But, interestingly, not vice versa.)

But it sounds like common usage is changing its definition.

I've always used plethora as meaning an excessive amount. It's also a much cooler word.

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