I am wondering what is the difference between these two words? I often hear:

  • the fear dissipates
  • the pain subsides

But what's the real difference?

Also, where can I look for the subtle, or not so subtle, differences of words? Are there any good resources?

  • 1
    Have you looked at their respective dictionary definitions? – KillingTime Feb 20 at 7:34
  • Yes of course. I feel I can use them exchangeably. That’s why I am asking, – Tom Bennett Feb 20 at 8:03

I don't know the OP's level of proficiency in or exposure to the English language and its usage. In general, looking up a word's etymology helps in its correct or preferred usage.

As Kate Bunting already note in an earlier answer, dissipate refers to thinning out by spreading in all directions (radially outward), while subside refers to lessening to a lower level (vertically downward). However, it's not always that distinct in usage.


subside: "to sink to the bottom," from sub "under, beneath" … + sidere "to settle," from PIE root *sed- (1) "to sit."

dissipate: early 15c., dissipaten, "scatter or drive off in all directions," from Latin dissipatus, past participle of dissipare "to spread abroad, scatter, disperse; squander, disintegrate," from dis- "apart" (see dis-) + supare "to throw, scatter," which is apparently from a PIE **supi*- "to throw, sling, cast" …

Pain can subside -- become less severe by going to a lower level, or dissipate -- become less severe as if by thinning out. Either way, it just means that the pain has eased a bit.


According to the labour ministry’s labour inspection office, average levels of dust are expected to be higher than the 50 μg/m3 limit on Sunday, but are expected to subside by the end of the day. (Cyprus Mail)

After battering Taiwan, the storm had moved inland where it was expected to dissipate, but Nina turned north instead, reaching the Huai River basin … (Ozy)

  • I am starting to get it. In your other examples, levels of dust can subside but not dissipate. A storm can subside but not dissipate. I wonder how I can use etymology effectively for this purpose. Is there any recommended resources to read about it? – Tom Bennett Feb 20 at 12:09

Dissipate (in this sense) means to disappear by breaking up (as fog does). Subside means to sink to a lower level.

  • True but not necessarily, usage wise. The words are often used in a loose sense interchangeably, as OP has observed. – Kris Feb 20 at 9:19
  • Which dictionary did you use to find these definitions? I tried several dictionaries but couldn't find these. – Tom Bennett Mar 3 at 5:13
  • 1
    @TomBennett They are my own explanations of the different shades of meaning between the two words, which is what the OP asked for. – Kate Bunting Mar 3 at 9:04
  • That is wonderful. How did you learn to get these shades of the meaning? I want to do that for words but don’t see a reliable way. Any suggestion will be appreciated. Thanks! – Tom Bennett Mar 4 at 14:13
  • I've had a lifetime of reading widely and being interested in words! – Kate Bunting Mar 4 at 17:20

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