Q&A: ‘Populous’ vs ‘populated’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, pop quiz…

Q: Hi AWC, what’s the difference between “populous” an “populated”?

A: Can you provide some context?

Q: Like, if I think about Melbourne or Sydney, I might say “which is Australia’s most ‘populated’ city?”. And yet, my friend says it should be ‘populous’. Aren’t they just the same?

A: Similar, but not the same.

Q: Ugh. Of course.

A: Both words can be used to describe the “populace” – the inhabitants of an area, also just called its population. But there are usage differences, albeit subtle ones.

Q: Let’s hear them!

A: Well, it all comes from the Latin populus – meaning “a people”. The word “people” had been kicking around English since the 1300s and “populous” was actually the next one to come along about 100 years later. It simply meant having many inhabitants in proportion to the extent of the country,and came from the Latin populosusfull of people”. For example: It is the most populous city in that country.

Q: So first came the people, then the word for lots of them?

A: That’s right.

Q: What about “population”?

A: This word and “populated” didn’t come along until the 1600s. Up until that point, the verb “peopled” had done the trick. 

Q: I guess the number of people was still small.

A: Not exactly. Estimates put the world’s population in 1600 at around half a billion.

Q: So they just suddenly decided to start popping out “pop” words?

A: Latin had already given us “populous” by that point – an adjective. And “populace” (the noun) had also turned up in the 1570s. It was just an evolution.

Q: More like a REVOLUTION – power to the populace!

A: Cute. Anyway, to get back to your original question…

Q: Oh, yes please.

A: “Populous”, as we already described, was about having a large number of people. China is a populous country, but India is now the MOST populous country – that kind of thing.

Q: Speaking of India, my uncle Stan told me he recently visited New Delhi. But I got suspicious when he told me his favourite part of it was the selection of cheeses and meats like pastrami, plus how close it was to his house. Turns out he’d actually visited a new deli in his neighbourhood.

A: Haha, oh dear. The pastrami is a big clue that he wasn’t in India.

Q: Holy cow! You’re right.

A: So, just to put a line under “populous”, it is SOLELY about having a lot of people. Being full of inhabitants. That kind of thing.

Q: Got it. And “populated”?

A: This one’s a little more broad. For starters, it can simply be the past tense of “populate”. For example, from the 1780s until the 1860s, the British populated Australia with convicts.

Q: Oh, I recently found out that my great great grandfather was a convict sent to Australia. Apparently he and a friend stole a calendar. They both got six months!

A: Groaaaan. Anyway, while “populated” might feel like an adjective, it’s actually a verb that simply means “to inhabit” or “to occupy”. Nothing about the quantity. You’d typically need to modify it with an adverb like “sparsely” or “most” to activate more meaning.

Q: Example?

A: A country like Mongolia could be described as “sparsely populated”. Note that you’d never say “sparsely populous”. 

Q: So “populous” has “full” or “many” built into it, whereas “populated” is just an empty vessel that can be empty or full depending on the adverb?

A: Yeah, that’s one way of thinking about it. Remember also, while “populous” will always refer to people, “populated” can be for anything that is filled or inhabited. For example, a spreadsheet cell could be populated with data. And something can be the “most populated” if it has the most amount of data.

Q: Aha! Well, that brings us to a question like what is the “most populous” vs “most populated” city in Australia?

A: It’s Melbourne.

Q: Yes yes, but you’ve just said that “populated” CAN have most in front of it! So am I right?

A: No. In this case, we’re clearly talking about people and we’re asking which city has the most number of people in it. To assert that Melbourne is the “most populous” city in Australia is directly linked to its number of humans. However, to say it is the “most populated” city leaves some ambiguity. Is it the city with the most number of cafes? Bedbugs? Italians smoking on street corners?

Q: Oh come on! It’s pretty clear that it means PEOPLE.

A: Sure. It’s fairly clear. But if you wanted a BETTER way to say it (which was your question after all), then you’d use “most populous”. It’s tailor-made for the job. Alternatively, you can rephrase it as “which city has the largest population”. 

Q: But won’t that attract the same cafes and bedbugs?

A: Technically it should, but the word “population” has become synonymous with a human count of something. It’s just the way it is.

Q: Okay, fair enough. I guess I’ll use “populous” any time I’m popping that question in the future. 

A: The people have spoken!

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