It seems that they are interchangeable but I am having a hard time differentiating between the two.


Here is a brief explanation of the difference between latent and dormant in James Fernald, English Synonyms and Antonyms (1914):

That which is latent (from L. lateo, lie hidden) is hidden from ordinary observation (compare HIDE); as, latent powers; a latent motive; a disease is said to be latent between the time of its contraction and its manifestation. Dormant (from L. dormio, sleep) applies to the winter condition of hibernating animals, when they seem to sleep, or are even apparently lifeless; we speak of dormant energies (which have acted, and may yet again be aroused); a dormant volcano volcano; ...

Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1942) places latent and dormant in a larger group of related words that also includes quiescent, potential,and abeyant:

Latent, dormant, quiescent, potential, abeyant (or in abeyance) agree in meaning not now manifesting its existence. Latent implies concealment and is applied to that which is present without showing itself; dormant usually suggests sleeping and is applied to that which is alive without manifesting activity; as, a latent talent; latent energy; a dormant plant or volcano. "The poet's gift of seeing the latent possibilities in everything he touched" ([John Livingston] Lowes). "Which power can never exercised by the people themselves, but must be be placed in the hands of agents, or lie dormant" (Ch[ief] Just[ice John] Marshall).

Fernald's example of a latent disease is apt because, even though the germs may be proliferating madly inside the infected person's body, there are no symptoms yet—and as a result, the presence of the disease is hidden. A dormant disease, in contrast, is one that a person has had in the past but that has ceased (at least temporarily) to be active—and yet may be reactivated under the right circumstances (as when the body's built-up immunity to it breaks down).


Dormant refers to things not yet active, but with a chance to develop later, so like a bad gene in your body, that is waiting to be triggered by something.

not active or developing now, but possibly active in the future

Latent can be used in the same meaning, but also as something that has been hidden, not just undeveloped.

A feeling or quality that is latent exists now but is hidden or not yet developed.

  • 1
    Yes, because ‘dormant’ is derived from the Latin ‘dormire’ = to sleep and ‘latent’ is derived from ‘latere’ = to lie hid. For some reason, ‘dormant’ is misderived from the 4th conjugation Latin verb. Strictly, it ought to be ‘dormient’. But then, derivers do not always follow strict rules.
    – Tuffy
    Jul 2 '19 at 7:19
  • So they can be used interchangeably? Can someone use them in sentences? For example: you couldn’t say “latent volcano” aka “inactive volcano,” because that isn’t the correct usage. I’m still pretty confused.
    – Penny D
    Jul 2 '19 at 13:01
  • @Tuffy: "Dormant" was taken from French, not directly from Latin. In French, present participles are formed with -ant for verbs of all conjugation classes.
    – herisson
    Jul 26 '19 at 1:00
  • @sumelic Oops! Of course you are right. Thanks for reminding me.
    – Tuffy
    Jul 26 '19 at 7:10

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