MUNDANE MYSTERIES: The Difference Between “Gifts” & “Presents”

Christmastime…the time of year when everyone seems to be busy buying, wrapping, and giving items to people that we’d like for them to have. What are they called again?  Gifts! Or…is it presents? Is there even really a difference between “gifts” & “presents”?

Each word arose from a different language family. “Gift” was derived from the old Germanic root word for “to give”, which referred firstly to “an act of giving”, then to the item actually being given. In Old English, gift represented “the dowry given to a bride’s parents”. The word “present”, on the other hand, comes from the French word for “to present”, and refers to an item being presented to or bestowed upon someone. From the 1200s to now, both have been used to represent the idea of items being transferred with no payment expectation.

Both words are fitting synonyms that basically mean the same thing…but even well-matched synonyms can have their own individual connotations & varied usage patterns. “Gift” ultimately applies to a wider range of situations: they can be particular talents, the gift of gab, a musical gift. They can also be intangibles: the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use the word “present” to describe things such as those, since presents are more concrete or, well, in the present. For instance: if your whole extended family donated money on your birthday to go toward your college fund, you wouldn’t say “I got a lot of monetary presents”. Since you never really held those donations in your hand, “monetary gifts” works better.

Gift can also be what’s called an attributive noun, meaning it acts like an adjective in order to modify another separate noun. For example: you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people a…gift shop; you call the containers of items you send to your coworkers on birthdays or holidays…gift baskets. “Present” doesn’t really work well to describe other nouns. Think about it: gift boxes, gift cards, gift wrap…those work. Present boxes, present cards, or present wrap…not so much.

Ultimately, for most folks, “present” is just more casual than “gift”. So, it might be best to think of it this way: when a child sits on Santa’s lap to tell him what he or she wants for Christmas, he or she will usually ask St. Nick for “lots of presents”, as opposed to “many gifts”.

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