Is there a difference between a sledge, a sleigh and a sled?

Dictionary definitions suggest they are synonymous, but it certainly sounds wrong to refer to Santa Claus on a sledge.


5 Answers 5


A sledge is normally taken to mean ‘a carriage mounted upon runners instead of wheels, and generally used for travelling over snow or ice’. It shares its etymology and meaning with sled, a form which the OED describes as being ‘chiefly dialect and US’. It does, however, have some meanings that sledge does not have. They include ‘any of various devices made to be towed along the sea bed’ and ‘a kind of river-boat used on the Ohio’. Sleigh has the same etymology, but generally describes a sledge which can be drawn by horses.

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    Do you think it is necessary and important to remember this distinction when using the words? Is there a more frequently used word among them with a broader meaning?
    – Kris
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 10:14
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    @Kris: I think it is helpful to distinguish between what a child slides down a snow-covered slope on, and what rich people ride through Gstaad on. Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 10:18
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    If bob-sled is a sub-type of a word only used in non-standard dialects, there are a lot of yokels in winter sports. (Great answer, BTW.) Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 11:56
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    @Barrie: “… drawn by horses” – or reindeer, of course :-) Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 12:13
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    Sled also has a specific engineering meaning of a carriage that slides on a smooth surface. So bridge sections might be moved into position by on a sled by hydraulic rams
    – mgb
    Commented Dec 22, 2011 at 19:33

There is a difference among American, British, and others; I'll give (my) AmE interpretation.

  • sleigh - a vehicle like an open-air carriage, pulled by horses, using runners instead of wheels for use in winter on snow/ice.

  • sled - a small single person conveyance to slide down hills, usually has runners, but may just have a flat bottom.

  • sledge - any kind of flat conveyance to be dragged over the ground. These are used for conveyance large loads or injured people when a wheeled vehicle is not available. The references I have seen define 'sledge' almost identically to 'sleigh'. I would never use 'sledge' for Santa's kind of sleigh, nor would I use it for a child's winter toy. 'Sledge' is pretty rare in AmE.


In the US, here would be images of how I define each sledge, sleigh, and sled, despite all of them having a similar definition in the dictionary.


Sleigh:santa's sleigh

Sled:kid on sled

However, snowmobilers often call their snowmobile a sled, as well:Arctic Cat

Note: All images came from a Google image search and are presumably copyright of their respective picture takers.

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    Your "sled" image (with the child) is a sledge in UK English. And your "sledge" (first pic) would be a sledge hammer.
    – guest34491
    Commented Oct 9, 2017 at 11:58

I would be inclined to say that a sleigh or sled are pulled by animals - for example Reindeer in Santa's sleigh or a dog sled. A sledge is self-propelled, hence why children, at least in the UK, are referred to as sledging rather than sleighing or sledding (though I have heard sledding occasionally; I would not say that it is in common use however).

  • Not when it is a bob-s... with the official organisations called Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing, United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and Bobsleigh Canada Skeleton.
    – Henry
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 12:18
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    I can well imagine a Briton going "sledging" on a "sled", just to confuse matters.
    – slim
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 13:20
  • Interesting, as in American usage the words sled and sleigh have seemingly opposite connotation, see Barrie England's comment to his own answer. Indeed, many children in Canada and the northern parts of the U.S. look forward to riding down hills in round or oblong plastic devices this time of year, and most call this device a sled.
    – cobaltduck
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 14:33
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    @Wade Actually in canada we call the round ones saucers and the ones without runners and rounded at the front (made of wood, aluminum, or plastic) are toboggans. If it has runners or skis it's a sled.
    – ghoppe
    Commented Dec 19, 2011 at 21:19

I believe that (like the various words for bread rolls, or the pronunciation of "scone"), the meanings of these three variations on the word vary widely by location, social class and social circle.

Most UK children will only get the opportunity to use a sled/sledge/sleigh every couple of years, when there's an unusually generous snowfall, so the words are not in frequent enough use for a true standard to emerge.

In parts of the English speaking world where snow is more guaranteed, I strongly suspect you'd find clusters of each word.

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