Same Difference

No problem. Have a nice day.

Dear Word Detective:  What does “same difference” mean? Where did that come from? How can “same” be “different”? I know that two mathematical equations can be different but have the same answer, but what about other subjects? — Diane Lecik.

That’s what’s always bothered me about math. Two plus two equals four, right? But three plus one equals four, too. And two times two equals four. Twenty divided by five equals, guess what, four. Heck, one million divided by 250,000 equals, you got it, four again. Seems to me that we’re putting a heck of a lot of eggs in one very small basket labeled “four.” If something were to happen to that weird little number, we’d be in deep oatmeal. People should quit freaking out over the Large Hadron Collider and start worrying about the number four. This wouldn’t be happening if we’d stuck to the gold standard, y’know.

“Same difference” is a colloquial idiomatic expression meaning “no difference” or “the same, equivalent” (“You say he was fired? But he says he left to spend more time with his Airedale.” “Same difference.”). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest use of the phrase in print found so far is from 1945, in a book titled “I Am Gazing Into My 8-Ball” by the legendary New York gossip columnist Earl Wilson. It’s likely, of course, that the phrase was widely used for years before it made it into print.

The problem with “same difference” for many people is simply that the phrase, as it is commonly used, makes no sense. If something is the “same” as something else, there is no difference. You can say “the same” or “no difference,” but “same difference” gives a lot of people headaches. One poster I came across on the internet called it “the most moronic oxymoron in the English language,” and conservative arbiters of traditional English usage traditionally go berserk when encountering “same difference.”

There is, incidentally, a use of “same difference” that does make sense: the mathematical equivalence you mentioned and its metaphorical cousins. If I’m selling a gizmo for ten dollars and you bid seven, whereupon I lower my price to eight and you boldly offer five, that two-dollar gap is the “same difference” remaining between our bids.  Similarly, if I am a slob and my house is a mess, while you are a neatnik and your home gleams, there is the “same difference”  between our two personalities and our two abodes. I am not a slob, by the way. Not much, anyway.

So where did the use of “same difference” to mean “the same” come from? The most likely answer is simply that people combined “the same” and “no difference,” perhaps first as a mistake, and the phrase then “grew legs” because it embodies a certain cheeky humor, which brings us to an important point. “Same difference” is an idiom, a fixed phrase used in casual conversation. It doesn’t have to make sense, because idioms often don’t make literal sense. We say, for instance,  that things “fall between the cracks,” meaning that they get lost or overlooked. But “between the cracks” on a floor made of floorboards (the original metaphorical reference) would be a solid surface, not a void. If things are gonna fall, you should want them to fall “between the cracks.”

“Same difference” is, despite the howls of the Language Police, not a threat to the logic of the English language (to the extent that there is such a thing), because using “same difference” as a fixed phrase does not degrade the meaning of either “same” or “difference.” There hasn’t been an epidemic of people using “same” to mean “different” (“I hate this purple. Do you have this dress in a same color?”), and there won’t be anytime soon.

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