Earthly vs. Earthy

By Mark Nichol

What’s the difference between earthly and earthy? Once upon a time, they were synonymous, but now, though there isn’t exactly a world of difference between the two terms, they have distinct meanings.

Earthly is an adjective that refers to life on Earth, as opposed to extraterrestrial or spiritual existence. Earthy, by contrast, though it is superficially similar to earthly in its senses, denotes practicality, simplicity, or roughness, coarseness, or crudeness. Flavor, odor, or texture suggestive of soil, mundane matters and plain styles, and ribald humor are all described as earthy.

Synonyms for earthly include earthbound, mundane (itself derived from the Latin word for world), terrestrial and terrene (both the former, a common word, and the latter, rarely employed, are descended from the Latin term for earth), and worldly; these terms, with the exception of earthbound, all relate to nonspiritual matters rather than extraplanetary ones.

The noun from which both earthly and earthy developed is itself rich in meaning and has inspired numerous idiomatic phrases, including several that suggest the sense of earthly: Someone described as down to earth is realistic and sensible; a person described as being the salt of the earth is solid and reliable, and an earth mother is one with nurturing qualities, suggesting that she is an extension of the world, which provides all that humans need to live.

And if someone says to a friend named Joe, “Earth to Joe, Earth to Joe,” the expression suggests that Joe is an astronaut in orbit and the speaker is an earthbound person sending a radio message to Joe to remind him that he figuratively needs to return to Earth’s surface and come to his senses.

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2 Responses to “Earthly vs. Earthy”

  • Charles Waring

    Friends,

    Do consider another meaning of earthy, which is a person who does a lot of outdoor activity, is close to nature and may have the air of being a “hippie.” This type of person thrives “doing his own thing” at college. (To clarify the type, see earthy sorts at The University of the South at Sewanee.)

    Cheers,

    Charles W. Waring III
    Sewanee ’87

  • Debby

    I simply adore these posts! Thanks to all who contribute.

    Now, if you would, please, please, address something that gives me shivers every time I hear it – every time I read it … it is the infamous … “He broke his leg.”

    Tell me please how he broke his leg?

    Why it is not just as easy to say/write … “His leg was broken.”

    Did he take a hammer to his own leg? How does one break their own bones? Or, for that matter, cause any other injury to themselves?

    Describing an injury, correctly and honestly, can be accomplished with the same amount of words, more or less.

    So, please, do me a favor, and someone deal with this topic for me.

    I would be so grateful.

    Debby

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