Replicate / Duplicate

Kinda like the Mona Lisa done in crayon.

Dear Word Detective: I have noticed, while listening to TV, that almost everybody now uses “replicate” instead of “duplicate” no matter what they are replicating or duplicating. I always tended, perhaps incorrectly, to use “replicate” when one was talking about a physical structure like, say, a boat model. But I used “duplicate” when I duplicated a paper (on a duplicating machine perhaps!). Are these synonyms and interchangeable or is there a real difference between them? — John Sellars.

Well, “replicate” is cooler, y’know. Reminds folks of “replicants,” the artificial humans in the 1980 film Blade Runner, which was the first known use of the term in that sense. (The Philip K. Dick book on which the movie is based, “Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?”, used the more familiar sci-fi term “android”). Back in the 17th century, however, “replicant” meant simply “new applicant.”

“Duplicate” and “replicate” are considered synonyms, but they do have slightly different meaning in some uses.

“Duplicate” first appeared in English in the 16th century as an adjective meaning “double” or “of two corresponding parts,” as well as a noun meaning “exact copy,” and then as a verb (in the early 17th century) meaning “to double, to multiply by two” or “to create an exact copy” of something. The root of “duplicate” is the Latin “duplicatus,” past participle of the verb “duplicare,” combining “duo” (two) and “plicare” (“to fold or turn back,” also the source of our English “ply”).

“Replicate,” which can, like “duplicate,” be a noun, a verb and an adjective, arose a century or so earlier from roots parallel to those of “duplicate.” In this case it the root was the Latin “replicare,” meaning “to repeat” (“re,” meaning “again,” plus our friend “plicare,” to fold or turn over). In Latin, “replicare” meant to fold, bend back, unroll or, metaphorically, to “turn something over in one’s mind, to consider”). In post-Classical Latin it meant “to repeat; do again,” and that meaning carried over when the verb “to replicate” first appeared in English in the 15th century. In practical use thereafter, it overlapped to a great extent with “duplicate.”

All of which brings us back to “duplicate” versus “replicate.” The shade of difference between the words in modern use lies in the slightly “after the fact” or “in a different form or context” sense that “replicate” carries. If I run the minutes of a meeting through a copy machine as soon as it adjourns, I’d usually say I “duplicated” them. If, however, I mistakenly feed them into the shredder, not the copier, I’m faced with a late night of trying to “replicate” them from chopped paper and my memory. Similarly, a “replica” (which has largely replaced “replicate” as a noun) of a ship will probably be a detailed, but much smaller, model. “Replicate” implies an attempt to re-create an object, action, etc., at some remove of time, space or purpose. As such, it contains a bit more wiggle room than “duplicate.” This makes it ideal for TV commentary, where a bit of vagueness implies good judgment and moderation.

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