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Replicate / Duplicate

Kinda like the Mona Lisa done in crayon.

Dear Word Detective: I have noticed, while listening to TV, that almost everybody now uses “replicate” instead of “duplicate” no matter what they are replicating or duplicating. I always tended, perhaps incorrectly, to use “replicate” when one was talking about a physical structure like, say, a boat model. But I used “duplicate” when I duplicated a paper (on a duplicating machine perhaps!). Are these synonyms and interchangeable or is there a real difference between them? — John Sellars.

Well, “replicate” is cooler, y’know. Reminds folks of “replicants,” the artificial humans in the 1980 film Blade Runner, which was the first known use of the term in that sense. (The Philip K. Dick book on which the movie is based, “Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?”, used the more familiar sci-fi term “android”). Back in the 17th century, however, “replicant” meant simply “new applicant.”

“Duplicate” and “replicate” are considered synonyms, but they do have slightly different meaning in some uses.

“Duplicate” first appeared in English in the 16th century as an adjective meaning “double” or “of two corresponding parts,” as well as a noun meaning “exact copy,” and then as a verb (in the early 17th century) meaning “to double, to multiply by two” or “to create an exact copy” of something. The root of “duplicate” is the Latin “duplicatus,” past participle of the verb “duplicare,” combining “duo” (two) and “plicare” (“to fold or turn back,” also the source of our English “ply”).

“Replicate,” which can, like “duplicate,” be a noun, a verb and an adjective, arose a century or so earlier from roots parallel to those of “duplicate.” In this case it the root was the Latin “replicare,” meaning “to repeat” (“re,” meaning “again,” plus our friend “plicare,” to fold or turn over). In Latin, “replicare” meant to fold, bend back, unroll or, metaphorically, to “turn something over in one’s mind, to consider”). In post-Classical Latin it meant “to repeat; do again,” and that meaning carried over when the verb “to replicate” first appeared in English in the 15th century. In practical use thereafter, it overlapped to a great extent with “duplicate.”

All of which brings us back to “duplicate” versus “replicate.” The shade of difference between the words in modern use lies in the slightly “after the fact” or “in a different form or context” sense that “replicate” carries. If I run the minutes of a meeting through a copy machine as soon as it adjourns, I’d usually say I “duplicated” them. If, however, I mistakenly feed them into the shredder, not the copier, I’m faced with a late night of trying to “replicate” them from chopped paper and my memory. Similarly, a “replica” (which has largely replaced “replicate” as a noun) of a ship will probably be a detailed, but much smaller, model. “Replicate” implies an attempt to re-create an object, action, etc., at some remove of time, space or purpose. As such, it contains a bit more wiggle room than “duplicate.” This makes it ideal for TV commentary, where a bit of vagueness implies good judgment and moderation.

Weary / Wary

Or maybe the crooks just all became government contractors.

Dear Word Detective:  As I understand it, “weary” means “tired” and “wary” means “not trusting.” Increasingly, it seems I’m seeing people use the former for the latter in a way that would pass the grammatical test, but changes the meaning, e.g., “By the late 1990s, the numbers indicated crime had indeed dropped in New York City. While Giuliani and other supporters of broken windows have long cited it as the reason behind the decline, critics have been weary for some time.” Merriam-Webster seems to indicate that this usage is incorrect, and notes that the etymology comes from different Middle English words, “wery” vs. “war/ware,” but I also know that spelling changes can happen, c.f. “insure” vs. “ensure” where we tend to assume different meanings these days. So, is there any tie between “weary” and “wary”? Or are they just plain wrong? Or alternately, are they just tired? — Sean Duggan.

Good question. Speaking of crime in New York City, I find it odd that it dropped precipitously at just about the time I left. Perhaps my departure (and consequent un-muggability) robbed the city’s malefactors of the ultimate incentive, the brass ring on the merry-go-round of crime, that gave them the will to go on.

Had I been the editor charged with smoothing your example sentence (which seems to come from a website called, I would have changed “weary” into “wary,” stared into space for a moment, and then changed it to “dubious.” “Wary” is a bit too emotive; the critics are doubtful, not fearful.

“Wary,” is an adjective meaning “cautious, on one’s guard, suspicious, circumspect” (“After several bad experiences on eBay, Bob was wary of the seller offering a MacBook Pro for $49″). “Wary” first appeared in English in the 16th century, drawn from the Old English “waer,” meaning “careful” and “aware,” which in turn came from the Germanic root “waraz” (“attentive”), from which we also developed “aware.”

“Weary” is both an adjective, meaning “intensely tired or fatigued,” and a verb, meaning both “to become fatigued” or “to cause to become fatigued” (“By drawing out the War in length, they might think to weary and disorder the Enemy.” 1657). To “become weary” or “to weary” another person tends to imply a long, tedious ordeal; one might be “tired” after a fast game of ping-pong; one is “wearied” by a protracted lawsuit.

So there’s no etymological or sense connection between “weary” and “wary,” only a strong resemblance in spelling. Given that the arguments over the “broken windows” theory of policing (suggesting that strictly enforcing “quality of life” laws cuts serious crime) have been going on for years, everyone involved must be “weary.” But the logic of the sentence makes “wary” more appropriate, and I think we can chalk that “weary” up to a typographical error. As for the other uses of “weary” for “wary” that you’ve encountered, I think it’s a case of simple confusion based on the similarity in spelling, a close resemblance in sound, and, perhaps, a limited vocabulary.


Urk… [thud].

Dear Word Detective:  I tripped over one of our cats on my way to the kitchen last night, and after I recovered my balance, I started to wonder about the word “trip.” As a verb, it means to stumble and perhaps fall, perhaps hurting yourself. But as a noun, it means a journey, often a pleasant one (usually more pleasant than beaning yourself on the stove, anyway). Are these really the same word, and, if so, how did they end up with such different meanings? And what about “trip an alarm”? How does that fit in? — Larry.

Those darn cats. Trust me, they’re doing it on purpose. I have calmly and patiently explained to our cats that if they do eventually succeed in incapacitating me by running between my legs as I come downstairs, I will be unable to open those pricey cans of cat food. But it did no good. It makes me wonder if they have ulterior motives quite apart from trying to get my attention. Perhaps they’ve all chipped in, bought a life insurance policy on me, and are getting impatient.

Onward. “Trip” as a noun comes from “trip” as a verb, so it’s probably easiest to begin there. Our English “to trip” comes from the Old French “treper” or “triper,” meaning “to strike the ground with the foot to show joy or impatience; to leap, dance, skip, stamp, hop or trample.” Appearing in English in the late 14th century, the general sense of “to trip” was “to dance or move lightly on one’s feet in a lively manner.” This is the sense used in the hoary (and, to me, intensely annoying) phrase “Trip the light fantastic.” The phrase was coined by the poet Milton in 1642 (“Sport that wrinkled Care derides, And Laughter holding both his sides, Come, and trip it as ye go, On the light fantastic toe.”), but is probably best known from the 1894 song “The Sidewalks of New York” (“Boys and girls together, me and Mamie O’Rourke / Tripped the light fantastic on the sidewalks of New York.”).

Of course, not everyone is Fred Astaire, and early in the 15th century “trip” took on the additional meaning, now the most common, of “to strike the foot against something so as to stumble or fall.” In the late 19th century, a sense of “trip” meaning “to release or set into operation” arose, probably from the motion of a mechanical switch or lock. This “set off” sense is used today when we “trip an alarm.”

Given all this dancing around and falling down, “trip” as an enjoyable (maybe) journey might seem unrelated, but it’s not. The original sense of “trip” as a noun in the 16th century was “the act of tripping,” i.e., dancing, skipping, etc. This led in the 17th century to “trip” meaning a short journey (originally by boat), a short “run” to some point and back, especially if routinely taken (e.g., a “trip” to the supermarket). By the 18th century, a “trip” could mean any sort of journey taken, originally one taken for pleasure, but eventually coming to include the dreaded “business trip.”

Incidentally, the use of “trip” to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a hallucinatory experience induced by a drug, especially LSD” is an extension of this “journey” sense dating back to 1959 (“I took some mescaline… At the end of a long and private trip which no quick remark should try to describe, the book of The Deer Park floated into mind.” Norman Mailer). “Trip” in this sense has also been used since the 1960s to mean “an exciting experience” (“Visiting my old high school was a real trip.”) and “a delusional, obsessive or self-indulgent state of mind,” as in “ego-trip” (“I shouldn’t bother — politics was a sixties trip.” 1979).