OED defines these words as:

foliage: the leaves (of a plant or tree) collectively; leafage

leafage: leaves collectively; foliage

Both of them seem to mean almost the same.

Google NGram gives the following picture:

Google NGram for foliage vs. leafage

So, aside from the fact that leafage is much less widespread in comparison with foliage, is there any difference between their semantics or the way they are used?

  • 2
    Don't forget "frondescence" and "infrondescence". And simply "leaves". English = synonyms galore. – Mark Beadles Mar 31 '12 at 15:46
  • ...and "foliature". – Mark Beadles Mar 31 '12 at 15:53

The two words are pretty much synonyms in all contexts, but if a distinction can ever be made, perhaps leafage sometimes alludes slightly more to the individual leaves (albeit, collectively). I don't advance this possibility particularly strongly, because I don't think I really believe it myself.

Thus you might see leafage pattern used relatively more often to refer to the "average" pattern on each leaf, as opposed to the foliage pattern referring to the overall disposition of leaves on the plant. By "relatively" there, I mean after allowing for the fact that "foliage" is much more common in the first place.

The general advice would simply be; forget about using the word "leafage". There are no contexts where "foliage" would actually be wrong, and using the uncommon word may stand out as "odd".

  • 1
    So it's nothing more than a forced each/every distinction? – MasterHeartache Mar 31 '12 at 16:08
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    @MasterHeartache: I would say so, yes. I wasn't aware of any distinction when I first saw your question, and a couple of minutes "leafing" (!) through Google Books did nothing to change that perception. Except that in the case of each/every both words are common, and there are some different idiomatic usages. With foliage/leafage, there aren't. Just avoid the latter, since in most cases all it will do is mark you as using an uncommon word for no good reason. Which might imply you don't know the common word, since "leafage" is easily derived from "leaf", which everyone knows. – FumbleFingers Mar 31 '12 at 16:20

It depends on context and audience.

Leafage sounds scientific, like something a botanist might say; especially if making references to leaves both singly and collectively (in the same article, speech, etc.) and the author wants to maintain a singular subject. To me, this seems a proper use of such collective nouns.

Foliage is more colloquial.

  • Plus, the plural leafages may have greater semantic meaning to certain audiences than mere foliage. – chrisdillon Mar 31 '12 at 19:46
  • 1
    So you're saying that leafage, with its germanic root "leaf", is scientific sounding, whereas foliage, from latin root "folium", is colloquial? Hmm ... – Kaz Mar 31 '12 at 23:42
  • @Kaz: I meant the use of the words, not the words themselves. I should have made that clearer. – chrisdillon Apr 1 '12 at 2:19

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