Difference between ‘cemetery’ and ‘graveyard’ in English

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

Some people think graveyard and cemetery mean the same, but, if we want to be a little nitpicky, we should say that graveyard is a type of cemetery, but a cemetery is usually not a graveyard. To understand the difference, we need a little bit of history.

graveyard
Source: Wikipedia

From about the 7th century C.E., the process of burial was firmly in the hands of the Church (the Christian organization), and burying the dead was only allowed on the lands near a church (now referring to the building), the so-called churchyard. The part of the churchyard used for burial was called graveyard, an example of which you can see in the picture.

As the population of Europe started to grow, the capacity of graveyards was no longer sufficient (the population of modern Europe is almost 40 times higher than it was in the 7th century). By the end of the 18th century, the unsustainability of church burials became apparent, and completely new places for burying people, independent of graveyards, appearedand these were called cemeteries.

The etymology of the two words is also quite intriguing. The origin of “graveyard” is rather obvious; it is a yard filled with graves. However, you might be surprised to hear that “grave” comes from Proto-Germanic *graban, meaning “to dig”, and it is related to “groove” but not to “gravel”.

Of course, the word “cemetery” did not appear out of the blue when graveyards started to burst at the seams. It comes from Old French cimetiere, which meant, well, graveyard. Nevertheless, the French word originally comes from Greek koimeterion, meaning “a sleeping place”. Isn’t that poetic?

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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