The Grammarphobia Blog

Do we need a new word to express equivalence?

Q: A Slate headline: “Stop Comparing Fukushima to Chernobyl.” Huh? We can’t compare two nuclear accidents because one was much worse? Isn’t that what a comparison is? Many people seem to think “compare” just means finding things equivalent. But how might one express such equivalence? We need a word, perhaps “equivalate.”

A: English does seem to need a verb meaning “to regard as equivalent” or “to find similar.”

“Liken” is sometimes appropriate, and a lot of verbs come close: “approximate,” “equal,” “imitate,” “match,” “parallel,” “resemble,” and so on. But they’re not quite there, or might not always do. The verb “equate,” for example, can mean to make equivalent as well as to regard as equivalent.

Actually, there is a verb that’s equal to the task, “equivale,” but it’s considered rare or obsolete. English adapted it in the early 17th century from the French équivaloir, which is derived from the Late Latin æquivalēre (to have equal force).

The Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “equivale” lists two meanings: (1) to provide an equivalent, and (2) to be equivalent to.

The OED doesn’t have any written examples for the first sense, and describes it as obsolete. The dictionary describes the second sense as rare and has several examples from the 1600s, but none since then.

If enough people feel the need, perhaps “equivale” may be revived one day or perhaps your suggestion, “equivalate,” may catch on.

Certainly, “compare” can’t always be relied on to do the job. Are people right to take offense over its use? On that point we’re forced to equivocate. Perhaps they’re right, but then again maybe they’re being oversensitive.

In modern English, to “compare” two things isn’t necessarily to find them equivalent. It can have that meaning, but it can also mean to merely examine for similarities and differences. Here’s the story.

Our verb “compare” comes from French and ultimately from Latin, in which comparare literally means “to pair together, couple, match, bring together,” according to the OED.

When it was first used in English writing, in 1447, “compare” did have that narrower meaning. It was generally followed by “to” and meant “to speak of or represent as similar; to liken.”

Here’s an example from Thomas Starkey, written sometime before 1538: “The one may … be comparyd to the body & the other to the soule.”

When this sense of “compare” is used in the negative (as in “not to be compared to”), the expression usually implies “great inferiority in some respect,” the OED says.

Here’s an example from a 1611 version of the Bible: “All the things thou canst desire, are not to be compared vnto her.”

Note that in this sense, the verb “liken” could replace “compare.”

However, a broader sense of the word emerged soon after the original.

This meaning, first recorded in the early 1500s, is defined by the OED as “to mark or point out the similarities and differences of (two or more things); to bring or place together (actually or mentally) for the purpose of noting the similarities and differences.”

Here are examples of this usage, from the pens of famous writers:

Sir Robert Burton: “Whats … the world it self … if compared to the least visible Star in the Firmament?” (from The Anatomy of Melancholy, before 1640).

John Milton: “To compare Great things with small” (from Paradise Lost, 1667).

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “In England … property stands for more, compared with personal ability, than in any other [country]” (from an 1847 work on Montaigne).

Both senses of “compare”—to liken as well as to mark similarities and differences—are still alive today, which can account for hurt feelings once in a while.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has these definitions:

“1. To consider or describe as similar, equal, or analogous; liken: Is it right to compare the human mind to a computer? 2. To examine in order to note the similarities or differences of: We compared the two products for quality and cost.”

The definitions in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) are similar. Yes, we compared them for similarities and differences!

The lesson, though, is not to use “compare” loosely when sensitive topics are being discussed. The audience may assume you’re likening two things, when in fact you’re merely examining them.

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