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In an allusion to Dave Starr’s magnificent¹ cover art, I had the opportunity to use its title idiomatically, and said:

“The closer the bone, the sweeter the meat.” … and was promptly corrected: “Nearer.” That kept me wondering:

In what semantic instances do we have to specifically use ‘closer’ or ‘nearer’ respectively?

For ‘near’ as well as ‘close’, there are plenty of non-specific and/or interchangeable uses (e.g. “a near/close friend”, “stay near/close”), but also definite distinctions (e.g. “close/near quarters”). Consequently at least, we could say “We’re close to/near the bone”, couldn’t we?

There is also a question here asking about differences of the adjectives themselves, which I couldn’t apply to the construct in question (adverbial comparative with ‘the’)—it’s all about physical distance.

Curiously, the digram suggestes a transition in frequency by 1947, lacking explanation of course.

¹(For the actual cover art, see Discogs or Amazon.)

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    I don’t find “a close friend” and “a near friend” equivalent. A near friend sounds like someone who is almost a friend, but not quite or not yet. – Xanne May 31 '20 at 8:43
  • 'Near' and 'near to' are often interchangeable, and are often interchangeable with 'close to', but you can't say 'I'm close London / home / the motorway / the bone'. If anything, 'The closer the bone' means 'the nearer the bone is to me / us / you / a person', not 'the closer to the bone [the meat you're serving] is located'. 'The closer the tyrannosaur, the more you wish you'd brought a bigger gun.' – Edwin Ashworth Jul 14 '20 at 13:40

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