altitude vs elevation

Gary Rosenberg rosenberg at SAY.ACNATSCI.ORG
Mon Dec 9 08:06:02 CST 1996

The essential difference between elevation and altitude is that elevation
can carry a connotation of process, whereas altitude refers only to a pattern.
The OED entry for elevation that Robin Leech cited groups definitions 1-8
under "I. Process or result of elevating" and 9-12 under "II. The height to
which anything is elevated", whereas that for altitude is "Height above the
ground, or, _strictly_, above the level of the sea; height in the air,
loftiness."  So there nothing incorrect about using "elevation" and
"altitude" interchangably, but one might consider if pattern or process is
more relevant to the context.

By the way, for those who like arguing from the authority of dictionaries,
"Webster's" is not a copyrighted term.  Anyone can use it in the title of
reference book.  To get the Noah Webster tradition, look for Merriam-Webster
dictionaries.  Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary is the current
unabridged dictionary in that lineage.  As a further caution, neither of the
OED definitions is supported by a quotation later than 1880, and the entries
are unrevised from the 1st edition of that dictionary and may not reflect
20th century usage.

Gary Rosenberg
Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia

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