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Same Difference

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Dear Word Detective:  What does “same difference” mean? Where did that come from? How can “same” be “different”? I know that two mathematical equations can be different but have the same answer, but what about other subjects? — Diane Lecik.

That’s what’s always bothered me about math. Two plus two equals four, right? But three plus one equals four, too. And two times two equals four. Twenty divided by five equals, guess what, four. Heck, one million divided by 250,000 equals, you got it, four again. Seems to me that we’re putting a heck of a lot of eggs in one very small basket labeled “four.” If something were to happen to that weird little number, we’d be in deep oatmeal. People should quit freaking out over the Large Hadron Collider and start worrying about the number four. This wouldn’t be happening if we’d stuck to the gold standard, y’know.

“Same difference” is a colloquial idiomatic expression meaning “no difference” or “the same, equivalent” (“You say he was fired? But he says he left to spend more time with his Airedale.” “Same difference.”). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of the phrase in print found so far is from 1945, in a book titled “I Am Gazing Into My 8-Ball” by the legendary New York gossip columnist Earl Wilson. It’s likely, of course, that the phrase was widely used for years before it made it into print.

The problem with “same difference” for many people is simply that the phrase, as it is commonly used, makes no sense. If something is the “same” as something else, there is no difference. You can say “the same” or “no difference,” but “same difference” gives a lot of people headaches. One poster I came across on the internet called it “the most moronic oxymoron in the English language,” and conservative arbiters of traditional English usage traditionally go berserk when encountering “same difference.”

There is, incidentally, a use of “same difference” that does make sense: the mathematical equivalence you mentioned and its metaphorical cousins. If I’m selling a gizmo for ten dollars and you bid seven, whereupon I lower my price to eight and you boldly offer five, that two-dollar gap is the “same difference” remaining between our bids.  Similarly, if I am a slob and my house is a mess, while you are a neatnik and your home gleams, there is the “same difference”  between our two personalities and our two abodes. I am not a slob, by the way. Not much, anyway.

So where did the use of “same difference” to mean “the same” come from? The most likely answer is simply that people combined “the same” and “no difference,” perhaps first as a mistake, and the phrase then “grew legs” because it embodies a certain cheeky humor, which brings us to an important point. “Same difference” is an idiom, a fixed phrase used in casual conversation. It doesn’t have to make sense, because idioms often don’t make literal sense. We say, for instance,  that things “fall between the cracks,” meaning that they get lost or overlooked. But “between the cracks” on a floor made of floorboards (the original metaphorical reference) would be a solid surface, not a void. If things are gonna fall, you should want them to fall “between the cracks.”

“Same difference” is, despite the howls of the Language Police, not a threat to the logic of the English language (to the extent that there is such a thing), because using “same difference” as a fixed phrase does not degrade the meaning of either “same” or “difference.” There hasn’t been an epidemic of people using “same” to mean “different” (“I hate this purple. Do you have this dress in a same color?”), and there won’t be anytime soon.

6 comments to Same Difference

  • Dave

    I think of it as comparing 2 things from 2 perspectives, 1 from A perspective, and 1 from B perspective, if 2 things are different (A and B) then they are both different in the same way from both perspectives (A is 2 more than B in A’s perspective, and A is still 2 more than B in B’s perspective, of course, B can be 2 less than A in A’s perspective, but then B will still be 2 less in B’s perspective, they are equally different from both perspectives, because neither of them changes)

  • Bob Harris

    In addition to the 1945 appearance in text, the expression is used in the 1946 movie Dark Alibi. It is spoken by the main character, Charlie Chan, at the end of the movie.

    The movie was recently shown on TCM, and may be available for view at their website. It’s pretty awful.

  • Robert Karlsson

    The different definitions of “Same Difference” really bugs me.

    Personally i have always thought it fit this description:
    Man 1: Wow you bought a red car?
    Man 2: Actually it’s maroon.
    Man 1: Same Difference.

    Meaning: When you agree that what you said was not exactly correct, but you think the difference is not important.
    (Cambridge Dictionary – British)

    Or: OK, I admit that they’re not the same thing, but they’re not different enough for me to really care about it.
    (Urban Dictionary – Global)

    Or: The difference between two things is not important.
    (Cambridge Idioms Dictionary – British)

    And actually while writing this comment i think i cleared up why there are different definition of “Same Difference”, maybe?

    Here’s the other definition:
    Man 1: Either he’s a genius or he’s crazy, same difference.

    Meaning: The same thing.
    (Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms – America)

    Or: The same, no difference at all.
    (McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Idioms – American)

    Or: No difference at all, the same thing.
    (The American Heritage® Dictionary of Idioms – America)

    So.. See the factor which might explain why there are two opposing definitions of the same phrase? It’s Britain Vs. America.

    According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of the phrase in print found so far is from 1945, in a book titled “I Am Gazing Into My 8-Ball” by the legendary New York gossip columnist Earl Wilson.

    So apparently it originated in written form in America, so why did it change meaning when transferred to Britain? Anyone up for trying to explain? Of course it might have been spoken earlier in either America or Britain, who knows?

    Either way, even though it originated in writing in America, i prefer the British definition. Because same and different are words with substantially opposite meanings, when used together form an internally contradictory concept. That’s why i have trouble defining it as “same thing” which is a grammatically correct. Who agrees?

  • No, thanks.

    It sparked from the saying “same thing.” People get bored with phrases and want to mix it up to suit their own fancy. It’s something that humans do to amuse themselves, it’s pointless to do, and it’s pointless to argue.

  • john

    I think the expression “same difference” is illogical and should be done away with. Perhaps the original use was for comedic effect, or to attract attention to some issue by using novel language. It may be colloquial and have gained traction, but that is no excuse for continuing to use it, the same way that “ain’t” and “irregardless” have found their way into our language but they’re just not a great way to say things. In a mathematical sense, it has some value (7-2=5 and 10-5=5; “same difference”), but otherwise if all this means is “the two things are the same” then it is confusing and wordy. One could say “same thing” and save 50% of the syllables and avoid potential confusion. But yes, it seems to be engrained in the lexicon at this point.

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