Why do identical words such as: "uttermost" and "utmost" coexist?



Let's take two words:

  • uttermost
  • utmost

As I can see it that they are identical. They aren't two different words that have the exact same meaning, in fact "uttermost" is just another word for "utmost" and the only difference I see is the different prefixes "ut" and "utter". So conclusively these two words are in fact clones.

Prepositions and Particles in English: A Discourse-functional Account By Elizabeth M. O'Dowd says that the prefix "ut" is - An Old English prefix that means "out", confers a resultative state on its completement: we understand that "to utter" means to put words out, so our attention is directed to the output, as well as to the act, of speaking.

I can't find the explanation for the prefix "utter".


Posted 2016-11-30T09:58:15.960

Reputation: 23 612

3Every (natural) language has this sort of duplication, not just English. Your native language certainly does, too. – BlueRaja - Danny Pflughoeft – 2016-11-30T14:38:46.857

1English is a great language for poets and lawyers; not so great a language for engineers. Uttermost and utmost have a different number of syllables, which might be important in a poem. – Ghotir – 2016-11-30T16:51:13.783

Because people are lazy and pronouncing syllables is hard. Then other people are pedants and think that the lazy are destroying the language... – Nick T – 2016-11-30T18:03:27.973

Two words: Poetry and Music. I frequently select a word to match the music of my sentence. – Max Murphy – 2016-11-30T19:07:55.343

1Yes, the meanings are equivalent. One thing to consider is that these words are pretty archaic. You wouldn't normally hear them used in modern, non-poetic English. "I spoke with him" and "I talked to him" may have the same denotation (dictionary definition) but different connotations. Spoke with is a little more formal, polite, or proper than talked to - and the dictionary won't tell you this, you just know it from the way people use them. Maybe it was the same way long ago when Utmost and Uttermost were used more commonly, but even if so, that kind of subtlety doesn't exist today – automaton – 2016-11-30T22:18:49.950

You are right about "speak" and "talk". That's why there are several words with different shades, but there are also words that don't differ and aren't synonyms. – SovereignSun – 2016-12-01T07:23:48.790



According to the Cambridge dictionary, uttermost is the formal version of utmost, which suggests that utmost was originally regarded as some kind of abbreviation.

You will find a definition of the origins of utter here.

Languages were not designed by a team of engineers: they have evolved over millennia. As with humans, evolution values diversity: it does not discard redundant or duplicated features, and only discards with extreme reluctance those that have a negative impact.

English developed over a large area in terms of the communications available at the time, and so duplication and inconsistencies were bound to develop. Once they exist, the evolutionary force that drives change in language is in no hurry to get rid of them.


Posted 2016-11-30T09:58:15.960

Reputation: 43 538

utter (adj.) Look up utter at Dictionary.com Old English utera, uterra, "outer, exterior, external," from Proto-Germanic *utizon (source also of Old Norse utar, Old Frisian uttra, Middle Dutch utere, Dutch uiter-, Old High German uzar, German äußer "outer"), comparative adjective from ut (see out (adv.)). Meaning "complete, total" (i.e. "going to the utmost point") is from early 15c. – SovereignSun – 2016-11-30T12:05:54.270

utter and ut are very close in meaning. Most here stands for: the largest, the greatest, the biggest, e.t.c. – SovereignSun – 2016-11-30T12:07:05.250

@SovereignSun You can't just break words apart like that if they're not compound words. "utter" by itself means "to speak". And "ut" isn't even a word in English. – GalacticCowboy – 2016-11-30T15:50:33.233

I'd add that in addition to duplication being a product of language evolution, it also serves a purpose in creative writing forms (poetry, song-writing, etc) in that the writer can express the same ideas using different words to avoid reuse of the same word or to fit other requirements like meter or sounds – eques – 2016-11-30T15:50:50.513

@GalacticCowboy It might not be anymore, but most likely "ut" is a cranberry morpheme where the original word faded away but was left in some compounds – eques – 2016-11-30T15:52:14.303

@GalacticCowboy: I don't think that the verb meaning is relevant to this question, however the adjective meaning complete or extreme is: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/utter

– JavaLatte – 2016-11-30T15:59:30.003

1We have in Old English utmest. In Middle English we find outmost but also outermore and outermost. The outer form is a comparative form of out. Outermost would thus be the most more out :) – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2016-11-30T20:27:12.427


English allows different words to give different emphasises or shades of meaning to a statement or remark without breaking the thread of the statement.

i tried my utmost to answer your question. I did my uttermost to answer...

Rose White

Posted 2016-11-30T09:58:15.960

Reputation: 11

1I don't see any difference. Both are identical. But for instance in "I spoke to him" and "I talked to him" the different can be felt. – SovereignSun – 2016-11-30T16:15:17.730

Hm, I would use utmost for effort but reserve uttermost for physical distance. – Anton Sherwood – 2016-12-06T17:31:33.127