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I heard someone use a phrase something like:

  • My position (or power) is coequal with (something else).

I believe it was used in the American House Judiciary Committee. I don't hear this word often at all. Immediately I wondered to myself the difference between this word and "equal", and in which cases one should be used over the other.

coequal
Having the same rank or importance.
‘coequal partners’
Oxford Living Dictionaries

adj. Equal with one another, as in rank or size.
American Heritage Dictionary

As you can see from definitions, "equal" and "coequal" seem to mean the same thing, with "equal" even appearing in the definition of "coequal".

If we look at some of the sentences provided by dictionaries, I believe we see that "coequal" could easily be replaced with "equal".

coequal partners

  • equal partners

You know, we're a coequal branch of government.

Coequal branch of government seems to me to be referring to a branch of government that's simply "equal" (whether in powers or jurisdiction).

At first I hypothesized that "coequal" is more appropriate when referring to two entities, but many dictionaries define "coequal" as:

1.equal with another or each other in rank, ability, etc.
Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary

So going strictly by dictionary definitions, the word would be appropriately used whether with reference to another entity or multiple other entities.

I surmised that the use of "coequal" might be more common when speaking of powers of government or organisations. However I'm still unsure about this, as I see many of the quotations and usage examples not related at all to this.

I also hypothesized that "coequal" means "equal to something else", however I realized that the word "equal" impliedly has this meaning. For example if I was the last human on earth it probably wouldn't make sense to say I am equal or have equal rights. Rather the equality seems always to be comparative to other things.

Finally, I thought I discovered a difference. If we take:

  • "coequal partners"

We might imagine partners in a business who have an equal say, as opposed to a married couple. However I think this is conveyed just as much with "equal partners". Perhaps "coequal" emphasizes the first business meaning more than "equal" does?

Any significant differences between these two? Or any difference at all?

  • For the adjectival use, the OED (paywalled) gives these three senses: 1. Equal with († to, unto) one another or others; of the same rank, power, importance, value, etc. (Usually of persons or their attributes.) †2. Of the same age, coeval. Obsolete. 3. Of equivalent extent, coextensive with. – tchrist May 9 at 6:12
  • @tchrist I guess if you mean "coequal" to mean definition 3, ie., something like "coextensive", then definitely "equal" isn't an appropriate substitute. Thanks. – Zebrafish May 9 at 6:19
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While the dictionary entries you cited are technically correct, I think they are missing the sense of the word, which I think is what really explains it. I work in programming, and deal with a similar distinction at work, where "=" "==" and "eq" all have nuances of the same basic meaning, 'equals'.

To say two things are equal implies actual, qualitative similarity. Equal means two things ARE the same, at least with regards to the quality you're talking about. Being coequal, rather, is a more general statement about the relative standing of the things being considered.

All people have equal rights. But you and your boss are not coequals, there is a difference in standing.

From your example, if you said that all three branches of government were equals, hits the ear funny, equals with regards to what? You can say they have equal power. You can say they have equal standing. But they are coequal.

To back this up with a reference, here you go:

https://wikidiff.com/equal/coequal

This cites a similar difference as I point out above. Equal points to actual equality, while coequal says the things are "equal to each other in size, rank or position."

  • The distinction you've raised is interesting, and I'm still thinking it over. "All people have equal rights. But you and your boss are not coequals, there is a difference in standing." In this example you've have given a useful wider context to each word, whereby sentences themselves seem to create different meanings. For example, simply saying "All people have equal rights. But you and your boss are not equals. There is a difference in standing" would also create this distinction of the types of equalness that we can talk about (ie., status or rank versus human or legal rights.) – Zebrafish Jun 5 at 22:44
  • And I think "equal" is commonly used where "coequal" would be used. For example, the term "first among equals" is common when considering the Pope, prime ministers, chief justice etc. I don't find Wikidiff's explanation wrong, I just see a lot of holes in its reasoning. I think you have a point that many people and institutions would use "coequal" rather than "equal" to emphasise one quality over the other. It's interesting how often the terms seem interchangeable or at least how often it seems the dictionaries make them appear that way. Thanks. +1 for the answer, it's good food for thought. – Zebrafish Jun 5 at 22:51
  • Thanks. I think you're totally right, they are often used interchangeably, and it gets fuzzy. But I think the reference to standing starts to get at the different feeling of the words. – Willoughby Will Jun 6 at 15:49

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