Cost-Effective vs. Cost-Efficient
A reader has asked about the use of these two terms:
I was wondering if you would care to comment on the difference between cost-efficient and cost-effective. In both, Oxford and Webster (the free online versions), cost-effective is properly defined while the cost-efficient page points to that of cost-effective. It looks like cost-efficient is a tolerated synonym of a lesser status.
As always, my starting place is The Oxford English Dictionary. There I find a reference to cost-effective in the entry for cost:
cost-effective adj. designating or pertaining to a project, etc., that is effective in terms of its cost.
The first OED citation given for cost-effective is dated 1967. I find no entry for cost-efficient.
Merriam-Webster Unabridged provides entries for both terms:
cost-effective adjective: economical in terms of tangible benefits produced by money spent.
cost-efficient adjective: cost-effective.
M-W gives 1970 as the “first known use of cost-efficient.”
I conclude that there is no difference of meaning between cost-effective and cost-efficient.
Is one term of “lower status” than the other?
The most that can be said is that one is more common than the other.
The OED and M-W date the terms from 1967 and 1970, but the Ngram Viewer shows that cost-effective was present in printed sources as early as 1836. Both terms are documented in works printed in 1887. Cost-effective shows a bump on the graph in the 1940s, but then both terms remain more or less even until the 1960s, when cost-effective soars ahead.
A Google search also shows a preference for cost-effective:
“cost-effective”: about 83,600,000 results
“cost-efficient”: about 7,840,000 results
My advice is to use the more common term: cost-effective.
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