The Grammarphobia Blog

Isn’t it botanic?

Q: Have you ever noticed the difference in the names of the New York Botanical Garden and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden? Which one is right?

A: Yes, I’ve noticed that one garden is “botanic” and the other is “botanical.” I always have a hard time remembering which is which. (Brooklyn’s is “botanic” and the Bronx’s is “botanical.”)

In fact, both adjectives are correct and there’s no difference in meaning. Some of the big public gardens around the country use “botanic” in their names and some use “botanical.”

Many word pairs in English have both “ic” and “ical” endings. Sometimes these adjectives mean the same thing, and the choice is yours, as is the case with “botanic” and “botanical,” “cyclic” and “cyclical,” “ironic” and “ironical,” “geologic” and “geological,” and others.

But sometimes the words mean different things, as in “classic” and “classical,” “historic” and “historical,” “politic” (the adjective) and “political,” “economic” and “economical.”

For example, Monk’s album Straight, No Chaser is a jazz classic, but Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” is classical. Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was historic, but the two runners who paced him were minor historical figures.

Also, a politician might give a long, windy speech on budget matters. It would be an “economic” speech but not an “economical” one. Later, he might give a “political” speech that wasn’t very “politic.”

Then there are words like “mythic” and “mythical.” They generally mean the same thing, though “mythic” has a slightly different meaning when used in a literary sense (a book that’s “mythic” may have the quality of myth without being mythical per se – that is, dealing in the imaginary).

As for “botanic” vs. “botanical,” we got both in the mid-17th century, perhaps from botanique, French for botanical or botany, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The ultimate source is a Greek word for “plant.”

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