I forget how this came up, but I ran across something that made me wonder about the adjective especial, which I think of as an antiquated and/or British equivalent of special and have never (to the best of my knowledge) used. It turns out there is supposed to be a difference between the two; Bryan Garner, who can be relied upon for antiquated distinctions, says:

Traditionally, especial (= distinctive, significant, peculiar) is the opposite of ordinary. E.g.: “The public press is entitled to peculiar indulgence and has especial rights and privileges.” Special (= specific, particular) is the opposite of general <this community has special concerns>, though increasingly special is driving out especial.

The usually reliable Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage is unwontedly vague:

These words are etymologically the same, so they might be expected to be synonymous. That they are essentially synonymous is at least historically true, but in present-day English they are not synonymous very often. When they are, it is usually special and specially that are used like especial and especially rather than the other way around.

They do not, however, describe the lack of synonymousness, simply saying “Especial, as the less usual word, is therefore somewhat more emphatic.” So I turn to the Varied Reader: do you use the adjective especial, and if so, how do you see it as differing from special?


  1. I, like you, make no use of especial.

    The OED1 (1891) says “In Old French the word [especial] had developed the secondary sense ‘pre-eminent, important’ (for the transition compare particular). In English the two forms especial and special differ materially in use; the latter (owing perhaps to its closer relation to the Latin etymon) is preferred in applications arising proximately from the primary sense [‘particular’], while the former is chiefly confined to the derivative sense. The distinction is still more marked in the adverbs especially, specially.” So (unless I am seriously confused, which may well be the case today) Garner is spouting nonsense, as usual: the meaning he gives for especial is that which in actual older usage is borne by special.

  2. I (SoAmE) use ‘special,’ and ‘especially.’

  3. So (unless I am seriously confused, which may well be the case today) Garner is spouting nonsense, as usual

    If you’re confused, I’m happy to join you in your confusion, because I like your conclusion.

    I (SoAmE) use ‘special,’ and ‘especially.’

    Me too; I think that’s the usage of most Americans.

  4. J. W. Brewer says

    The British National Corpus has 21534 hits for “special” and only 128 for “especial.” So if its a Britishism, it’s one they save for very especial occasions.

  5. J. W. Brewer says

    Admittedly, the BNC ratio is less dramatically skewed than that of COCA (86329 for “special” v. 146 for “especial”).

  6. I (SoAmE) use ‘special,’ and ‘especially.’

    But also specially, right? (To me) especially means “more than usual” or “more than the default amount”, which doesn’t really derive from any of the meanings of (e)special, though I guess it kind of echoes the distinction Garner is trying to draw. “I made this specially for you (and no one else)” vs. “I made this for the whole family, but especially for you.”

  7. Bit of a tangent, but while learning spanish I found that the word for special is ‘particular’ (at least in common Mexican Spanish usage) and the word for especial is ‘especial’.

  8. especial (= distinctive, significant, peculiar) is the opposite of ordinary. ,,, Special (= specific, particular) is the opposite of general

    if Garner is spouting confusion here, he is merely doing what comes naturally to most people. When in my reading I encounter a discussion in which words like “special, general, particular, specific, universal” are bandied about, I reach for my pistol. Even when the author makes a stab at explaining what some of these words mean to him, I don’t get it.

    To my way of thinking, the problem is not that the words are confused, but rather that incompatible concepts are skittering around in the semantic background. I am unable to imagine signifieds that consistently match the signifiers.

    What is the point of drawing a distinction between “general” and “universal”, for example ? Is “general” supposed to mean something like “in more than half of the cases, but not necessarily all” – and “universal” supposed to mean “in all cases” ? Strangely, even a given author may use (say) “universal” in apparently incompatible ways at different points.

    What are the counterparts supposed to be in each case: “specific”, “particular”, or what ? Is this a home-spun kind of set theory, or of simple statistics ?

    There has been at least one long discussion here about all this, including contributions from heavyweights such as Noetica – and yet at the end I was no wiser than at the outset. When people report here on how they use particular words, I usually find it very instructive. This is not the case when those words are “specific, general” etc – or, in the present case, when these are dragged as accomplices to “especial” and “special”

    What I suspect is that this confusion could be explained as a clash between certain ideas from systematic-philosophy-over-the-millenia that pre-fab our thinking even today. I don’t know what those systems might be – possibly from that medieval Nominalism versus Realism business (about “universals” and “particulars”), with a dose of Hegel for good measure.

  9. Among 146 COCA entries for special about 1/3 are from Spanish texts (How come? The corpus is for English). Two quotes are from E.A.Poe, which might be considered contemporary only in a sense that he is being printed and read in our time (is Homer also a contemporary?). One of them though is in an internal quotation in a truly contemporary book (there are some other quotes from older sources as well). A good many are misprints of “especial ly”. Some are in proper names. I looked through 70 of them and there are only 24 legitimate entries. They are heavy on academic/theological/philosophical use. There are only 4 spoken entries (out of 90 million) and 2 of them are apparently from Larry King. All in all the word seems to be on its way to the dustbin or, if you wish, to the glass case. MWCDEU seems to get the menaing right, especial=special with extra emphasis.

  10. While a non-native speaker, I have the same perspective as F. I didn’t know “especial” was an English word and would have fought against it at Scrabble. But I consider “specially” a synonym for “specifically” and not for “especially,” though I normally avoid it altogether as a possible source of confusion.

  11. This toothbrush is specially designed, especiallyfor children.

  12. I think I could use especial with nouns like interest or care to distinguish special interest (in a specific topic) from especial interest (greater than usual), but I’m not sure if I have ever done so.

  13. Canadian English here: +1 to what Giacomo wrote.

  14. about 1/3 are from Spanish texts. How come?

    Maybe because initial consonant clusters beginning with ‘s’ (like in ‘special’) violate Spanish pronunciation rules: The country is España, the capital of my country is Estocolmo, Slovenia is Eslovenia, school is escuela etc.

    By the way, as a non-native I would spontaneously have used ’special’ but ’especially’. Don’t ask me why – in my schooldays we were taught RP.

  15. [The entries for “special”] are heavy on academic/theological/philosophical use. … I consider “specially” a synonym for “specifically” and not for “especially,” though I normally avoid it altogether as a possible source of confusion.

    Just as I suggested above: uncertainty about word usage, due to academic/theological/philosophical noise in the background.

  16. I don’t think I’ve ever used especial; certainly not in ordinary, natural expression. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English describes it as “more Formal in many uses, perhaps because it occurs relatively infrequently”.

    Burchfield’s revision of Fowler has quite a detailed treatment of the two words and their related adverbs, and calls the margin between them “narrow and ragged”. After recounting the historical distinction, he writes that in present-day English “special has almost driven out especial in all senses; when especial is used at all it tends to mean ‘notable, exceptional; attributed or belonging chiefly to one person or thing (your especial charm)”.

  17. Stu, you yourself used the word “particular” in your long post above. But maybe you were just using it, not bandying it about.

  18. In 1966, age 18, I sent an appreciative letter to J.R.R. Tolkien. I received in reply one of the printed thank-you notes he was resorting to at the time. But after “thank you” he had inserted, by hand, “specially.” Needless to say, I still treasure this object. I remember thinking at the time that as an American I would have written “especially.”

  19. I can imagine myself using “especial [foo]” as a back-formation from “especially [foo-ish]”. Maybe I am an especial eccentric.

  20. [The entries for “special”] are heavy on academic/theological/philosophical use.

    Wow! For me it is quite colloquial, meaning out of the ordinary, not the usual, for a specific purpose. But I don’t think I would ever use especial, which sounds pretentious to me.

    Specially, especially, specifically do not mean the same, as with:

    “The repair was very expensive, because the part is no longer made and they had to make one specially”. (They wouldn’t normally have made one).

    “I bought it for the whole family, but especially for X”. (All can use it, but I expect X will enjoy it or benefit from it more than the others).

    “This is not for the whole family, I bought it specifically for X”. (For X alone, and I said so).

  21. I am close to marie-lucie (British English):

    I would never use “especial”, but if I came across it I would understand it to mean “particular” – as in “He was responsible for the entire orchestra, but the violins were his especial concern”.

    I think that “This is not for the whole family, I bought it specifically for X” could just as easily be “specially” without changing the meaning. And vice versa except that I think it has to be “specifically for X”, it can’t just be “they had to make one specifically”.
    But “especially” implies “not only this, but this more than other things”.

  22. But maybe you were just using it, not bandying it about.

    Nope, bandying. That’s all these words are good for, precision is not the point.

  23. Typo: I meant “[The entries for “especial”] … “

  24. ajay: I think it has to be “specifically for X”, it can’t just be “they had to make one specifically”.

    I agree: I wrote “they had to make one specially”.

  25. also thought of ‘especial’ and its derivatives as an older usage, though I do sometimes still write it.

    I find upon searching through the books on my hard drive:
    – H.Rider Haggard (1885 and on) uses it almost exclusively
    – Captain Joshua Slocum in the Voyage of the Liberdade (1890), uses ‘especial’ more than ‘special’, but both appear
    – Edgar Wallace in Sanders of the River (1911), uses both in about equal measure,
    “I cannot allow my servants to get drunk; more especially I cannot allow my drunken servants to sleep off their potations on my bed.”
    – Joseph Conrad uses only ‘especial’ once, in each of Almayer’s Folly (1895) and The Mirror of the Sea (1906). In Victory (1915) ‘special’ appears 23 times, ‘especial’ 8 times.
    – John Buchan in The Power House (1913) uses each twice, in Sick Heart River (1941) uses ‘special’ 18 times, ‘especial’ 9 times: from which we can conclude he developed a special fondness.

    The only contemporary document using ‘especial’ is a Phd thesis (2007) on John Buchan from the University of Tartu in Estonia.

    Other uses of ‘especially’ include http://languagehat.com/giraffe/

    Stu, “bandying, that’s all these words are good for” – I think that’s the best summation..

  26. Other uses of ‘especially’

    I didn’t write about the adverb in my post because there’s no similar problem; especially is entirely uncontroversial and in common use.

  27. I think we have to bear in mind that it isn’t just the Spanish who feel a need to convey the vocalisation of absolute word-initial ‘s’ before a consonant somehow. So let’s get over it! When I say ‘special’, which I do, always, I feel a vowel-like element there just before the ‘s’; and the same for ‘especially’. I can see the various wonderful nuances. But what I spell, normally, as ‘special, and ‘especially’, is fine. And the rather emphatic ‘especial’ and, well, I don’t quite know what, ‘specially’, are fine. And long live those nuances. I actually mostly just say them, and haven’t the foggiest what I say, but they convey what I want them to convey (insofar as I reckon I’ve communicated; but I was never sure that language was about communication – just slipped that in for fun). I wonder what people hear, if they’re listening. I’m a native speaker of English, S-E Lancashire (Oldham, so it’s overlapping with Yorkshire), with years of living in London and (now over) commuting to Scotland – but still with my beloved Lancashire accent (would that they hadn’t knocked the dialect out of me). I could fit in anywhere, something I valued.

  28. long live those nuances. I actually mostly just say them, and haven’t the foggiest what I say, but they convey what I want them to convey

    Your words, Ian, are poetry to me. But to your more prosaic first sentence I could add, that our neighbours, the Finns, compared to the Spanish handle initial consonant clusters the other way around: Instead of adding an ‘e’ they just skip them. So Stockholm in Finnish is Tukholma, school is koulu, strand (beach) is ranta, France is Ranska etc.

  29. “synonymousness”

    Isn’t that “synonymosity”?

    If M-L is still here, can she perhaps explain something about the usage of “espece de..” I get the sense that “espece” just by itself is enough to make what follows it a derogatory reference.

  30. Jongseong Park says

    I only remember encountering ‘especial’ in Darwin’s Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, along with other examples of fairly old-fashioned usage like the spelling ‘shew’ instead of ‘show’. It’s never been a part of my active vocabulary. But once I saw a couple of examples in use, it seemed intuitively clear to me that ‘especial’ could replace ‘special’ only in some restricted senses, like that of ‘particular’, that corresponded to the adverb ‘especially’. I think the distinction between ‘specially’ and ‘especially’ is robust for me.

  31. Synonymity or synonymy?

  32. Jongseong: Marie-Lucie and Étienne discussed espece de back in 2011. In short, the noun that follows it must be a correct description of the referent: you can’t say espece d’ornithologue except when insulting an actual or supposed ornithologist.

  33. Jim: the usage of “espece de..” I get the sense that “espece” just by itself is enough to make what follows it a derogatory reference.

    Une espèce has a wide range of meanings according to the TLFI, all deriving from Latin “species” which basically means ‘a kind, a type’. This originally scientific term became very popular, and around the 18-19C’s une espèce de … evolved to mean colloquially ‘sort of, not quite’, hence perhaps ‘lower than a…, not even a real … ‘, developing a generic pejorative meaning which the English equivalents do not have. If you address eomeone as Espèce d’andouille!, it makes the original andouille lit. ‘gut sausage’, but also ‘idiot, moron, etc,’ that much more insulting. But starting just about anything with espèce de makes the following word into an insult.

    In one of the early Tintin albums, a man insults another by shouting to him Espèce de chien! ‘You dog!‘ . Hearing this, Tintin’s dog Milou responds silently Et vous, espèce d’homme! ‘What about you, you man!‘.

    Although une espèce de does not have to be insulting in context, as in une espèce d’arbre ‘a tree species, a kind of tree, it often adds a derogatory flavour, as in On nous a servi une espèce de ragoût ‘We were served a kind of stew’ which implies that the stew was not appetizing or tasty (if it was, the appropriate description would be the neutral une sorte de ragoût).

  34. David Marjanović says

    In short, the noun that follows it must be a correct description of the referent:

    …for values of “correct” that, of course, allow for espèce de con “moron, dumbass”.

  35. David Marjanović says

    On nous a servi une espèce de ragoût

    😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

  36. the noun that follows it must be a correct description of the referent:

    “Correct” from the point of view of the utterer of the phrase!

    Espèce d’ornithologue! : the person so addressed could be an actual scientist, or the description could be exaggerated: for instance, a birdwatcher who insisted on showing off their (not always accurate) knowledge of a bird’s habits, etc might annoy a less flamboyant person overwhelmed with all the details, who could express their frustration with mumbling this phrase, putting an end to a heated conversation. Sort of like saying, “What do you think you are, an ornithologist?” but more insulting.

  37. Stephen Bruce says

    I don’t think I’ve ever used it either, and I think of it as old-fashioned, but it’s interesting that on the Google Ngram Viewer, special predominates over especial throughout (at least in the period 1700–2008 when it is somewhat reliable). Especial reached its peak around 1852, but even then, special was more than twice as popular.

    To take three random novels, especial doesn’t appear in either Pride and Prejudice (two instances of special) or Moby Dick (fifteen specials), but it does appear three times in Vanity Fair: “an especial favourite”, “any especial reverence”, “no especial grief” (vs. nine specials).

  38. In Harry Turtledove’s novel Ruled Britannia, someone asks Lope de Vega(one of the main characters in an AU where the Armada conquers England), “Saw you one who galled you in especial?” Here especial is apparently a noun, and in especial could correspond to either specially or especially in contemporary English. The dialogue in the book is in Early Modern English, except when the characters are speaking Spanish or Latin, which (like the narrative) are rendered into contemporary English.

  39. Here especial is apparently a noun

    Only if particular is a noun in in particular, which I don’t think it is.

  40. espèce de con

    Well, sure, but con already means ‘idiot’. My point (or rather Marie-Lucie’s point) is that since (e.g.) stégosaure is not normally applied to people, neither is espèce de stégosaure; espèce de does not itself supply a figurative meaning where there was none before. To say Espèce de stégosaure! felicitously, you have to be speaking (a) to an actual or figurative stegosaurus who (b) you don’t like; it does not implicate contempt for stegosauri as a class.

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