The Grammarphobia Blog

A sigh is just a sigh

Q: A Hebrew speaker has asked me to describe the difference between these three words: “moan,” “groan,” “sigh.” There’s only one word for all of them in Hebrew. Can you explain?

A: English is believed by many to have the largest lexicon – that is, the most words – of any modern language.
Although this depends on how one decides what a word is, English does indeed have lots of words  And that gives English speakers lots of flexibility.

When we need a noun, for example, we can often choose between three or four or more of them while the speakers of other languages may have only one to do the job.

So, as you point out (and The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew & English Dictionary confirms), we can utter a moan, a groan, or a sigh when we’re feeling down in the dumps, but a Hebrew speaker must be content with an anachah.

As for your question, I’d describe a moan and a groan as similar (they’re both vocal sounds), with the groan more intense. A sigh, on the other hand, is a breathing out that doesn’t involve the vocal cords.

A moan is described in the Oxford English Dictionary as “a low, inarticulate sound” expressing mental or physical suffering (or, in some cases, pleasure) that’s “less harsh and deep than a groan.”

A groan, according to the OED, is “a low vocal murmur, emitted involuntarily under pressure of pain or distress, or produced in voluntary simulation as an expression of strong disapprobation.”

A sigh, the dictionary says, is a “sudden, prolonged, deep and more or less audible respiration, following on a deep-drawn breath, and especially indicating or expressing dejection, weariness, longing, pain, or relief.”

I hope this helps. And tell your friend to lighten up!

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