I was writing a report for an assignment and found myself wanting to write the following sentence.

The resulting landscape shows more relief.

In Dutch, "relief" only has the French meaning (cf. le relief) related to geography so it came natural to me. Then I realized that "relief" in English also (and probably mostly) refers to the feeling. I double checked if it could even be used with the French meaning and found this: https://www.thoughtco.com/relief-geography-definition-1434845.

My question is whether the sentence above makes sense or is there an other word I should use instead to describe the "non-flatness" of the landscape?

Additionaly, is the word pronounced differently when using it with its meaning in French?

  • 2
    When you say "landscape" are you referring to the actual, physical, landscape or a picture or other representation of the physical landscape.
    – BoldBen
    May 23, 2021 at 22:53
  • The assignment is for a mathematics course. The sentence is referring to a probablity landscape which in this specific case is a 3D surface. In one case, the surface is very flat, but when some parameters are changed it becomes more 'not flat'.
    – MDescamps
    May 23, 2021 at 22:56
  • Very common google.com/search?q=relief+maps May 24, 2021 at 13:59
  • 2
    I would say "greater relief", "higher relief" or "sharper relief" rather than "more relief". I'm not sure why though... "more relief" just seems ever so slightly off
    – trent
    May 24, 2021 at 21:09

3 Answers 3


You’ve already made the right choice, because relief is the precise and correct word for what you want. It is pronounced the same way that its homograph is, the one you mentioned being about feelings and such.

The OED lists these two words completely separately. In fact, it has three different nouns here, although the first is obsolete as of the 16th century or so. These words came into all the European languages around the same time, because the literate were frequently literate in many languages and freely borrowed from one another.

  1. noun¹: c. 1225–1589
    Several related meanings connected to scraps left-overs, mostly those from a meal. No longer current. Their etymological notes mention:

    Compare Old Occitan releu, Catalan relleu (13th cent. as †releu; now regional), Spanish relieve (1251; chiefly in plural relieves; now archaic), Italian rilievo (a1288; now archaic or literary; also as †rilevo, †relievo), all originally and chiefly in sense 2, and Middle Dutch relief, relif remainder, (specifically) remains of food left after a meal (both late 13th cent.). Although in early use the English word often translates classical Latin reliquiae (plural) (see reliquiae n.), neither relief n.¹ nor its French etymon are etymologically related to the Latin plural noun.

  2. noun²: a. 1325–present
    This is the more common of the two current meanings. The OED places it in the same frequency band as it places dog, horse, ship, machine, mile, assessment, army, career, which means that it occurs between 10 and 100 times per million words in typical modern English usage. They identify its etymons as (Old) French releef, relief; the verb relieve, and Latin relevium. Specifically they mention:

    Probably partly < Anglo-Norman releef, relef, releff, relif, Anglo-Norman and Middle French relief (French (now hist.) relief) payment made to the overlord by the heir of a feudal tenant on taking up possession of the vacant estate (1215 or earlier in Anglo-Norman), formal acknowledgement of feudal tenure made by a vassal to a lord (13th cent. in Old French), alleviation (late 14th cent. or earlier in Anglo-Norman; < relever relieve v.), and partly (especially in later use) < relieve v. In sense 1a perhaps also partly < post-classical Latin relevium relevy n.1; compare Middle Dutch relief, relif, in same sense (end of the 13th cent.; < Old French; Dutch (now hist.) relief), and also post-classical Latin relevamentum (see relievement n.), relevatio (see relevation n.).

  3. noun³: 1606–present
    This is pronounced the same way as the previous one is, rhyming with belief. The OED places it in their frequency band 5, unlike the previous word which they place in 6. That means it occurs from 1 to 10 times per million words in ordinary English. They mention:

    The shift away from the everyday language found in bands 8-6 is apparent in nouns (e.g. surveillance, assimilation, tumult, penchant, paraphrase, admixture)

    So it isn't super rare in any way; those are normal words. They identify its etymons as Italian rilievo, relevo, relievo and French relief, and they suggest that one

    Compare Spanish relievo (late 16th cent.; < Italian or French), Dutch reliëf (1659 as relief; < French), early modern German relievo (c1650; < Italian), German Relief (18th cent.; < French).

As I said, this is the right word to use here. Let me cherry-pick of few of the senses they cite it gets used in today, along with their most recent of many, many citations for each of these I’ve selected.

  1. a. Moulding, carving, stamping, etc., in which the design stands out from a plane surface so as to have a natural and solid appearance. Also: work done in this way; the part which so projects. Sometimes with modifying word specifying the degree of projection: see high relief n. 1, low relief n., bas-relief n.

    • 2008 Edmond (Oklahoma) Sun (Nexis) 4 Oct.
      The heaviest object, a marble sarcophagus,..is heavily decorated with carved relief.
  2. c. figurative and in figurative context. Vividness, distinctness, or prominence due to contrast or method of presentation. Frequently as to throw (or bring, etc.) into relief.

    • 1991 K. Jones Learning not to be First ix. 103
      Lizzie became pregnant, and the sickly young woman's fecundity threw Christina's own barrenness into stark relief.
  3. b. Physical Geography. The manner or degree of variation in elevation of a part of the surface of the earth (or other planetary body).

    • 1990 Technol. Rev. Nov. 10/1
      Some scientists have said the sharp relief of many mountains suggests these areas have recently grown.

They list many compounds in which this version of relief is used, including: in relief, relief block, relief carving, relief construction, relief decoration, relief map, relief panel, relief plate, relief polish, relief polishing, relief portion, relief print, relief printing, relief process, relief stamp, relief stamper, and relief tablet. In my own personal experience, relief map is the one of those that I come across the most often.

So this is a perfectly normal word, and I would not hesitate to use it in your technical context.

  • 1
    +1 anecdotally we would always talk about "relief maps" and "relief lines" in geography lessons (in Britain). So while it's not a commonly used term outside of technical contexts (that is, you probably wouldn't say it in an everyday setting) I imagine it's probably more well-known than most technical terms because of its use in school-level geography.
    – Muzer
    May 24, 2021 at 9:38
  • 1
    +1. I'd also add there is no risk of ambiguity with the other meaning of 'relief' (landscapes do not say "I'm so relieved"!)
    – abligh
    May 24, 2021 at 13:17
  • There is also the military meaning in English, roughly "receiving assistance from friendly forces". For example "The Relief of Mafeking" in Victorian times which led to old puns about "Mafeking being relieved" in the emotional sense. There is also "relief of suffering" by means of humanitarian actions. At one time what we now call 'unemployment benefit' and other similar payment was called "poor law relief".
    – BoldBen
    May 24, 2021 at 13:59
  • 1
    @BoldBen I think those are part of the meaning of 2. *noun*²
    – Henry
    May 25, 2021 at 1:16
  • The "relief" of a guitar neck seems to be where meanings intersect. It's a slight bow (a kind of shape profile) which makes the instrument more playable at the higher fret positions while sacrificing less, (relieving your fingers of effort). :)
    – Kaz
    May 25, 2021 at 3:37

Relief is OK if there's sufficient context, but for just a few more characters you could just write out what you mean:

...shows more variation in height.

...shows a larger range of elevations.

...shows more extreme values.

...shows a wider range of values.

...shows more contrast.

Etc. Mix and match to your liking, as pertains to whatever you're trying to show with your map.


What about "the resulting landscape looks rough"?
Or "the result is a rough landscape"?

  • "rough" - "marked by inequalities, ridges, or projections on the surface, having a broken, uneven, or bumpy surface."

From the web:

I took a long walk north of the town, out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up.¹

During several ice ages , glacial ice up to one mile thick covered the region , modifying the rough landscape created by the previous era's uplifting .²

We reached the summit after a hard climb , and had a grand view of the rough landscape.³

postscript - You can always use "uneven" or "slightly uneven" (an uneven surface)

  • uneven - "not even : not level or smooth" MW
  • 4
    Hmm, that's not really what I mean because the surface is still really smooth. It's just wavy, or has more pronounced differences in altitude.
    – MDescamps
    May 24, 2021 at 0:23

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