Let consider context (e.g. historical recent past) where modern meaning of missile as a self-propelled ordinance with reactive or jet engine doesn't exist.

Then its original meaning is "an object which is forcibly propelled at a target, either by hand or from a mechanical weapon" (Oxford). How it is different historically it was from projectile (if it was), which same source defines as "a missile designed to be fired from a gun" or "an object propelled through the air, especially one thrown as a weapon".

Were they full synonyms, were they used interchangeably or projectile had appeared later?

  • They are fairly close synonyms, in several contexts.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 17:16
  • A projectile could be a rock shot with rubber bands, or a cannon ball from a cannon, or a clown in the circus, propelled by a seesaw. But when I hear "missile," I think nuclear weapon. That's not an answer, just a subjective comment -- hope it helps a tiny bit. Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 1:52
  • 2
    There may be some historical preference for describing long skinny pointy ones as missiles.
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 2:37
  • @aparente001 it's very modern meaning, mostly post-WWII one. And a rock shot from a sling is commonly referred as a "bullet" or "pellet" , so that's another level of confusion. The bullet on its own is derived from French "small ball" while "ball" is projectile for a ballista and in this case related to latin verb "to throw".
    – Swift
    Commented Jun 27, 2022 at 7:17
  • 1
    Well, for one thing, I've never heard of "missile vomiting".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jul 4, 2022 at 1:07

1 Answer 1


How it [missile] is different historically it was from projectile....Were they full synonyms, were they used interchangeably or projectile had appeared later?

Merriam-Webster says,

  • Of projectile (first use 1564) - a body projected by external force and continuing in motion by its own inertia especially : a missile for a weapon (such as a firearm)

  • Of missile (first use 1656) - an object (such as a weapon) thrown or projected usually so as to strike something at a distance

Apparently, the term projectile arrived first, and had both a broad and narrow meaning. The term missile arrived later, and had a comparatively broader meaning.

The terms' meanings overlap, but are not equivalent, just as with nearly all synonymous terms.

  • Lexico says the original sense of "missile" was "suitable for throwing", but any distinction that might once have existed between "suitable for throwing" and "thrown" seems to have been quickly lost. Both had very similar origins in Latin verbs meaning to throw out and to send.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 4, 2022 at 9:18

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