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When one refers to the act of modifying a physical object so as to make it better at absorbing sound vibrations, is that "damping" or "dampening" the object? I've seen both, and looking them up in the dictionary they appear to be more or less interchangeable.

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  • Could be either. Damp by itself is used as a zero-derivation verb meaning either inchoative become damp or causative make damp. The old but still occasionally productive -en causative/inchoative suffix (as in whiten, deaden, redden, shorten, ...) can do the same job, as the answers have pointed out. You pays your money and you takes your choice, like most things in English morphology. Feb 26, 2023 at 21:10
  • For the verbs: You dampen a cloth by wetting it but you damp sound or fire by adding a noise barrier to the first and something to reduce the strength of the fire in the second. The sound thing is definitely to damp, not dampen in this particular, contemporary case, in my humble opinion as a writer.
    – Lambie
    Feb 26, 2023 at 23:51

10 Answers 10

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Strictly speaking it's damp - OED: to stifle, choke, extinguish; to dull, deaden (fire, sound, etc.)

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As a child, it was my job to damp the fire (9600 hits in Google Books) every night by closing off the stove's air supply. If I did it right, next morning I'd just add more coal and open the air vents. If not, I'd have to clean everything out and relight it with paper and kindling.

According to OED, damp/dampen have a common origin - which is somewhat uncertain, but the key concept seems to be smoke, dust, vapour, steam. Today, damp is more closely associated with moisture/water, whereas dampen goes more with stifle/extinguish.

It's worth noting that dampen the fire gets 5310 GB hits (i.e. - the "incorrect" usage occurs relatively more often with fire than with sound). Partly that's because some people think in terms of adding dampness/water, rather than taking away air, to slow down a fire. But partly it's because they're essentially the same word anyway, so neither is really "wrong".

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The verb technically appears to be to damp. FumbleFingers notes the OED's definition. M-W and the Random House Dictionary (at Dictionary.com) under dampen merely refer the reader to the relevant definition of damp. The things in a piano are called dampers, not dampeners. In a more formal context, damp is the proper choice.

Dampen does seem to enjoy use. On the Wikipedia page for damping (music), there are instances of dampening. NOAD lists as a subsidiary definition, "reduce the amplitude of (a sound source)." M-W and Random House both acknowledge that it has the same meaning in music as to damp. In an informal context, dampen is fine.


In my own vocabulary, damp is an adjective and dampen is a verb. If I want a wet cloth to wipe the kitchen table, I do not damp it; I dampen it.

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    I agree that I would use "dampen" when referring to making something wet, but I also feel using the term "damp" for this meaning would offer some distinction between the two, as Liz writes.
    – devios1
    May 11, 2012 at 23:13
  • @chaiguy, why should such a distinction exist?
    – zpletan
    May 12, 2012 at 13:06
  • While the two uses may have stemmed from the same word, they've come to be used to mean quite different things, so it makes sense to split them into two related but slightly different words, to distinguish the two uses, imo.
    – devios1
    May 14, 2012 at 16:24
  • I volunteered as the leader of the Sound Ministry, doing the job of an audio engineer for about 10 years. I have no formal training. In that time I seem to have heard the verb "to damp" more formally than "to dampen", but I did hear both. So I agree with zpletan. +1
    – TecBrat
    Jun 3, 2012 at 11:25
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"-en" is added onto some adjectives to convert them into verbs. In that context, it is used to make the adjective's object more like the adjective. "The floor is not damp. Please dampen the floor." When 'damp' is used as an adjective, it means wet, so to dampen is to make it wet.

Damp is also a complete verb on its own, meaning (primarily) to reduce the amplitude. Adding -en in this context is improper. "That vibration is harsh. Please damp it." It would not make sense to describe a sound as being "not damp" like a floor...so you do not dampen it.

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    Hi Thomas, welcome to our site! Your answer is (in my view) entirely correct, and the additional information you introduce – i.e. the function of the "-en" suffix – could make it a most useful contribution, if only it was backed up by an authoritative reference such as quoting a dictionary definition of the suffix. Our site places great value on references, as they distinguish an authoritative answer from mere personal opinion. I encourage you to edit your post to add a linked quote, to take our site's Tour, and to post more answers! :-) Aug 23, 2020 at 22:36
  • The "problem" with finding a dictionary reference is that dictionaries aren't manuals, they point out how words are being used. Case in point, m-w now accepts "irregardless" as a valid, if nonstandard, word. However, here's another reference that "X-en" means to "become X" - thoughtco.com/common-suffixes-in-english-1692725. Beyond that I'd point to "res ipsa loquitur" - the facts speak for themselves. lighten, darken, strengthen, weaken, moisten...it's similar to -ify (fortify, clarify), -ize (colorize, harmonize), etc. Aug 26, 2020 at 15:46
  • Thomas, your points are quite valid, but they seem to ignore the equally salient fact that this particular online community has certain preferences on the way answers should be presented, and in the 8 years since this question was originally asked, those preferences have evolved and condensed into a fairly clear set of expectations, one of which is that answers include supporting references. For further guidance, I encourage you to read the help topic on How to Answer. :-) Aug 28, 2020 at 3:07
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I believe when you are referring to sound you should use "damping" or "damper". The two sound similar, but "damping" should always be used in the context of sound, gas or fire.

Damping: to check the vibration or oscillation of (as a string or voltage) (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Whereas "dampening" has a less scientific meaning:

  • to check or diminish the activity or vigor of : deaden ("the heat dampened our spirits")

  • to make damp ("the rain shower barely dampened the ground")

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  • Ummm . . . Merriam-Webster explicitly refers dampen 3 to damp 1c. I agree that damp is the more correct word, but M-W acknowledges and sanctions the use of dampen.
    – zpletan
    May 12, 2012 at 1:24
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damping

The correct word for reducing the amplitude in waves (such as sound waves) is "damping" or "to damp."

See wikipedia on damping

The word "dampen" means to make damp or moist, and is concerned with liquid, not sound.

These are often (and easily) confused, but as a former employee of Acoustic Sciences Corporation, I can tell you with confidence the correct word here is "damping."

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  • The way that the examples are arranged in the OED would seem to confirm your view.
    – WS2
    Dec 2, 2020 at 0:17
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When I was a young engineer, 25 years ago, I was told "To dampen is to get wet, to damp is to attenuate". Even back then most engineers I worked with used 'dampen'. More recently I've heard almost 100% usage of dampen. I am practically alone in my usage of damp, it seems. Times change, I suppose.

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  • Do you have access to any engineering books or technical dictionaries from 25 years ago that might support what you wrote? That would definitely improve your answer.
    – Tsundoku
    Sep 21, 2018 at 9:20
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Every Controls textbook I have from engineering school uses "damping" ratio; not "dampening" ratio. When hearing "dampening" I tend to want to ask someone if they plan to pour water on it.

(1) Basic Feedback Controls Systems, Alternate 2nd Edition, C.L. Phillips & R.D. Harbor, 1991, Prentice Hall (2) System Dynamics: Modeling and Response, E.O. Doebelin, 1972, The Ohio State University (3) Multivariable Feedback Design, J.M. Maciejowski, 1989, Addison-Wesley (4) Digital Control of Dynamic Systems, G.F. Franklin, J.D. Powell & M.L. Workman, 1998, Addison-Wesley (5) Modern Control Theory, 3rd Edition, W.L. Brogan, 1991, Prentice Hall

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  • Hi, welcome to EL&U. References are definitely valued here, and you've got them in spades. Could you quote the usage from some of them as examples to support your answer?
    – livresque
    Dec 1, 2020 at 23:35
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I blame Star Trek and their incorrectly named 'dampening fields'. Interestingly, in Season 1 of Star Trek: The Next Generation they correctly used 'damping field', but from Season 2 and beyond they had changed it. Perhaps the language in the 24th Century changed.

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The essence of acoustic damping is to suppress vibration. The relevant entry in the OED is

Damper

2.a. A piece of mechanism in a pianoforte for ‘damping’ or stopping the vibrations of the strings, consisting of a small piece of wood or wire covered with cloth or felt, which rests against the strings corresponding to each key, and is raised or withdrawn from them when the key is pressed down.

1783 J. Broadwood Specif. Patent 1379 b, b, are the dampers, which also is fixt under the strings.

1856 M. C. Clarke tr. H. Berlioz Treat. Mod. Instrumentation 72 The sign ⊕ indicates that the dampers must be replaced by quitting the pedal.

which gave rise to the verb

to damp:

1 c. Acoustics, Music, etc. To stop the vibrations of a string or the like; to furnish (the strings of a pianoforte) with dampers. In wider use: to impose or to act as a resisting influence on (an oscillation or vibration of any kind) so that it is either progressively reduced in amplitude or, if the resistance is sufficiently great, converted into non-oscillatory return to an equilibrium position; also used with the oscillating body as object. So to damp out: to damp, to extinguish by damping.

1840 Penny Cycl. XVIII. 140 A piece of cloth..to damp or stop the string [in a clavichord].

1935 F. J. Camm Pract. Motorist's Encycl. 82/2 The leaf-springs of the car's suspension system..damp-out a large proportion of the road shocks and vibrations suffered by the wheels of the car.

Which in turn gave rise to the gerund/noun/verbal noun, damping:

1 b. The action of damping an oscillation or an oscillating body (also damping out: see damp v. 1c, 1d); the resistance to an oscillation; also, the amount of this, as measured by the rate at which the oscillation diminishes in amplitude.

1870 London, Edinb. & Dublin Philos. Mag. 39 435 An oscillatory current..sustains itself twice as long against the damping action of resistance as a comparatively steady current of the same maximum value.

1945 Electronic Engin. 17 455 Resulting in better damping of the receiver diaphragm and consequently suppression of the effects of resonance.

1967 E. U. Condon & H. Odishaw Handbk. Physics (ed. 2) ii. iii. 22/1 As the magnitude of the damping is increased, the rate of decay of the oscillations becomes greater..until..the motion becomes aperiodic and is said to be critically damped.

As far as "dampen" is concerned MW does have

dampen verb transitive

1: to check or diminish the activity or vigor of : DEADEN

the heat dampened our spirits

Of particular concern, Ater said, is that the new laws and legal instability will dampen investment in Israel’s tech sector and lead to an industry brain drain.

Although one can see the connection between "to check or diminish the activity or vigor of" and The action of damping an oscillation, this American English use seems to be the use of to damp a fire, rather than be the more specific "damp" relating to oscillations and persistence.

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Shock absorbers on a car are more correctly called 'dampers' (not dampeners)as they attenuate the oscillation of the springs. In sci-fi films, inertial dampers seem occasionally nowadays to be referred to as 'dampeners'.

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    Please support your answer with sources. That makes your answer stronger, and more likely to be viewed as correct. Otherwise, even if it's correct, it's likely to be viewed as only opinion. The site tour and the help center will give you guidance on how to use this site. Dec 27, 2014 at 3:13

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