Reciprocation vs. Reciprocity

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What’s the difference between reciprocation and reciprocity? The distinction is fine but useful.

Both reciprocation and reciprocity mean “an act of return or requiting”; when one reciprocates, one responds to an action or a gesture by doing the same thing or something equivalent in form or value. These words stem from the Latin term reciprocus; the verb form, reciprocare, means “move or turn back,” “rise and fall,” or “come and go, move back and forth.” Reciprocation stems directly from Latin, while reciprocity is derived from the intermediate French term réciprocité.

The difference is that reciprocation connotes a more intimate, personal exchange, while reciprocity refers to a more formal situation, such as a political or social agreement or contract: When a person returns a favor, he or she engages in reciprocation; when two countries adhere to an agreement to exchange similar privileges or products, they are practicing reciprocity.

The adjective reciprocal refers to complementary actions by two parties (or one such action), but the word is also a noun meaning “something reciprocal to something else,” including one of a pair of numbers that, when multiplied, produce a product of 1 (such as 4 and 1/4). The verb form is reciprocate, the adverbial form is reciprocally, and the adjectival form is reciprocating. (For example, a reciprocating saw is a powered saw with a blade that moves back and forth so that the operator need only hold the tool while the motor makes the saw do the work.)

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4 thoughts on “Reciprocation vs. Reciprocity”

  1. When I first saw the title of this post, I did what I always do, which is test myself, before I read it, to see if I know the difference. Actually, I usually know the difference in my mind, but can’t put it into words as elegantly as you do. So in this case, I mulled it over as I drove home from wherever I was, and thought, to reciprocate is to return a favor or gesture, but not necessarily tit-for-tat. In other words, if someone invites me to dinner and I would like to reciprocate, I don’t necessarily have to invite them for dinner. There are other ways I can reciprocate, perhaps by bringing them a nice table centerpiece when I go there, or by dog-sitting for them at some point in the future. But reciprocity, which is definitely more formal, seems to be an exact return of services or behavior. For example, two states may have reciprocity regarding traffic violations; if you get a ticket in one state, you’re not home free, because the other state will find out and penalize you. Caveat: These are only my interpretations of the word meanings, and were in my head prior to reading the post. So I’m not sure if I’m on the right track or not.

  2. The most important use of the word “reciprocating” is in the concept of the reciprocating aircraft engine. That is the kind with cylinders and pistons, and reciprocating engines are still used in light airplanes – usually ones with one or two engines. There are also some small transport planes that still use reciprocating engines. Some of these are old planes that were made by Douglas Aircraft, the De Havilland Canada DHC company, or some Soviet company. These are very rugged planes, made over 50 years ago, but are still flying well. Look out for planes with names like the DC-2, DC-3, DHC Caribou, DHC Otter, and DHC Beaver.

    These are in contrast to turbine engines and jet engines.
    Turbine engines with propellers are used in some medium-sized airplanes, ususally ones with two or four engines. One example of these planes is the Navy P-3 Orion patrol plane (also flown by some air forces, such as the RAAF and the RNZAF), and another example is the medium-sized commercial airliners that are often made in Canada, Brazil, or Russia. Also, nearly all helicopters are now propelled by turbine engines, and it is hard to find one with piston engines, other than antiques.

    In large commercial airliners, jet turbine engines, including turbojets, are nearly always used, and those can be found on airliners that are made in the United States, in Europe (Airbus Industries), Canada, Russia, and China.


  3. In electronics engineering, there it an important kind of circuit called a “flip-flop” that is used to store data. It can reciprocate between two states, called a “one” or a “zero”, and there are several different varieties of these.

    I have spent a little time helping with words for a major German-English dictionary that is a project of the Technical University of Chemnitz** – in getting more translations of technical words from electronics put into it. I found out from my contact there that the word “Flip-flop” is known as a loan word from English for the kind of thong sandals that are popular in North America and elsewhere. However, the German word for an electronic flip-flop is different.

    Anyway, either kind of a flip-flop reciprocates between two states.

    **Chemnitz – known as “Karl Marx Stadt” during the evil communist regime of East Germany – one that murdered its own people who merely wanted to move across the border into a different country. Hundreds of East Germans were killed while they were trying to cross the Iron Curtain from east to west. We should never forget or forgive.

  4. For state licenses, i.e. teaching, real estate, alarm company, etc., reciprocity is an agreement between states that allows you to get a license in another state in most cases simply by taking the reciprocal state’s exam.

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