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Are 'obliterate', 'annihilate' the same thing? I've searched dictionaries and they both mean to destroy completely, or in other words, destroy utterly:

obliterate [verb] [transitive]

1 to destroy something completely

  • The bombing raid has obliterated whole villages

[Macmillan]

annihilate v.

1 destroy utterly; obliterate

  • a simple bomb of this type could annihilate them all
  • a crusade to annihilate evil.

[Oxford Reference]

While also trying to distinguish these two words from 'eradicate', I also did encounter a response saying that the two mean the same but doesn't go into details. I'm weirded out by it: at least they must have a subtle difference?

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    It is possible in English that two different words can mean exactly the same thing. Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 9:31
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    @Killing Time Someone has said: "All words are infinitely polysemic" (no single word even has exactly the same sense/s, connotations, distribution for any two people ... and doubtless a given person's comfortable usage changes over time). I'd say 'annihilate' is more associated with populations (especially human), and 'obliterate' can more comfortably be used with writing, works of art, more metaphorical signs. But there is a large degree of overlap. // I haven't yet found supporting references. Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 9:37
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    @KillingTime "He obliterated the word "not"." * He annihilated the word "not"."
    – Greybeard
    Commented Apr 15, 2023 at 10:25
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    In my mind, because obliterate is related to the word oblivion, I think it is most aptly used when the intention is to destroy something so thoroughly that it is wiped from memory, the historical record, etc. Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 0:58
  • Whereas eradicate means to get rid off, so you can potentially eradicate something by moving it far away.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 14:25

3 Answers 3

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There is a not inconsiderable overlap between the distributions of 'obliterate' and 'annihilate'. But as is usually (arguably universally) the case with synonyms, the interchangeability is not total.

Annihilate is often (but by no means always) used rather than 'obliterate' to speak of populations of sentient life-forms:

annihilate [verb]:

To reduce to nothing, to destroy, to eradicate.

  • An atom bomb can annihilate a whole city.

[Wikidiff]

  • The Army was annihilated.

[and the noun similarly:]

  • ...the threat of nuclear war and annihilation of the human race. [Collins] ....................

Obliterate is the usual choice when speaking of physical representations (writing, paintings, buildings) and metaphorical signs:

obliterate [verb] To remove completely, leaving no trace; to wipe out; to destroy.

  • Elbows almost touching they leaned at ease, idly reading the almost obliterated lines engraved there.

  • The harsh and bitter feelings of this or that experience are slowly obliterated.

[Wikidiff; adjusted slightly]

obliterate

to remove all signs of something, either by destroying it or by covering it so that it cannot be seen:

  • The missile strike was devastating – the target was totally obliterated.
  • All of a sudden the view was obliterated by the fog.

...

  • The original nappe geometry was obliterated by block tectonics.
  • They were standing at the front of the stage, choir-fashion, obliterating the voices of several soloists further up-stage.

to make an idea or feeling disappear completely:

  • Maybe she gets drunk to obliterate painful memories.

... - The traditional distinction between rural and urban has, however, largely been obliterated by modern communications.

[Cambridge Dictionary; selected examples, but none refer to animate populations]

Eradicate is often used with problems [more (Japanese knotweed) or less (loneliness) tangible]:

eradicate [verb]

to do away with as completely as if by pulling up by the roots

  • programs to eradicate illiteracy

...

  • The disease has now been completely eradicated.
  • His ambition is to eradicate poverty in his community.

[Merriam-Webster]

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    There's the sense that annihilate is to reduce to atoms, whilst obliterate is to hide from sight. It's in the secondary definition in many dictionaries.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 16:42
  • Yes; when you get to less used senses, interchangeability often becomes far less of an option. CD lumps the 'hide from sight' sense, but I agree it's very different from the 'destroy' meaning. Commented Apr 16, 2023 at 18:10
  • "obliterating illiteracy" and "the fog is eradicating the view" sound cool
    – justhalf
    Commented Apr 17, 2023 at 8:38
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I feel as if Obliterate is more for a kinetic process which the listener is invited to imagine -- bombs flinging parts of buildings all over. Whereas Annihilate is more antiseptic. We "annihilate evil" since it's abstract -- we can't actually blow it into pieces. We might say "a bomb of this type could annihilate them all" partly since along with blowing some things apart, it also instantly vaporizes some and kills others with fatal radiation (which isn't quite obliteration) and partly since we don't want to think about the horrible way the bomb works, which Obliterate would invite us to do.

If Tommy obliterated an ant hill, I imagine him kicking and stomping all over it. If he annihilated it I'm not sure -- he may have poured gasoline down it? Blocking out the sun would annihilate the human race. If a giant meteor obliterated the human race, I'm seeing it blast the earth into chunks. But if it merely kicked up a massive dust cloud, then it annihilated us.

Eradicate is for a process over time. In the future, aliens might obliterate human worlds in an effort to eradicate all humans.

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From the Etymology (dictionary based on Oxford Languages):

Obliterate:

mid 16th century: from Latin obliterat- ‘struck out, erased’, from the verb obliterare, based on littera ‘letter, something written’.

So the core etymology seems to suggest: "erase something written".

Annihilate:

late Middle English (originally as an adjective meaning ‘destroyed, annulled’): from late Latin annihilatus ‘reduced to nothing’, from the verb annihilare, from ad- ‘to’ + nihil ‘nothing’. The sense ‘destroy utterly’ dates from the mid 16th century.

The core etymology seems to suggest "to make nothing".

It does mean there is signficant overlap in common usage today, however, it seems that Annihilate seems to be obliterate completely so there is literally nothing left. To obliterate means to erase something that already exists. It doesn't indicate to what extent - common usage implies until nothing is left, but the eytmology suggests simply to erase what was.

@Edwin Ashworth's excellent distinction maybe has it's source here - obliterate refers to a physical entity or something - i.e. something written that was erased. Whereas Annihilate refers to people - i.e. in a general sense of reducing to absolute nothing, and not a specific object but rather a being.

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