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What are the differences between the words "holy", "saint" and "sacred"? While there are several other synonyms to all of these, these are the ones I see most commonly and I'm wondering if there are any differences between them as to how and for what they can be used.

If I were asked about it, the following would come to my mind, but I am not sure whether I am right:

  • I usually hear/read the word "sacred" in the context of the ancient American civilizations, such as "The Sacred Temple of [insert arbitrary God's name here]". This (and well, this word has always felt to me kind of "dark" - I don't know a better word) makes me believe that "sacred" is used to describe the religious importance/quality of someone/something that's distant for the average English speaker - both geographically and culturally. Another example which seems to reinforce the "distance" aspect is that - to my knowledge - cows in India are usually qualified as "sacred" animals rather than holy or saint.
  • I usually hear/read the word "saint" to qualify people, especially Christians. I guess this word must be strongly related to the fact that in order for someone becoming qualified as Saint (s)he must have done a wonder during his/her lifetime.
  • I usually hear/read the word "holy" again mostly in a context that has something to do with Christianity and I believe it is commonly used for non-living entities, such as Holy Crowns, The Holy Grail, Holy Water, etc.

So what are your thoughts (or rather, the facts)? Are there important differences between these words? I also welcome any important remarks on any other synonyms as well.

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    An example of a very well-written question if ever there were one. Apr 12, 2017 at 11:44
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    Thanks @TeacherKSHuang that kind remark means a lot to me :)
    – Balázs
    Apr 12, 2017 at 11:45
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    If we compare all three as adjectives, sacred, holy and saintly, I would say that "sacred" is OK for animals, ideas, things, places, etc. and "holy" and "saintly" would be OK to describe people in addition to the aforementioned. But this is a very general overview. Apr 12, 2017 at 11:58
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    Meanwhile, it is also important to note that there are some phrases which are set and used traditionally, for example, "sacred duty" instead of "holy duty". And some which are a part of their name, so we would not use another word, e.g., the Holy See. And saint is exclusively used to describe peoples. Apr 12, 2017 at 12:09

2 Answers 2

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A similar question has been addressed and closed here: https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/84837/whats-the-difference-between-hallow-sacred-holy-and-saint

I'll still take a stab at this one.

Saint is easy to separate from the other two because there are formal criteria for a religion to recognize somebody as a saint. As you said, a saint is a person. The term is used colloquially in reference to people who are really nice, as well.

Holy and sacred both imply that the thing being described is dedicated to a deity. Yes, they are most commonly used in Jewish, Christian, or Islamic writing. They don't have to be. The gate to Valhalla in Nordic Mythology is the Holy Door. Wiccans frequently refer to things as sacred.

I would say the primary difference between the two is Holy is an intrinsic trait, and sacred is an attributed trait. Think of if like Holy is an actual property of the thing being discussed. Sacred is the reputation of the thing being discussed.

See also: http://www.differencebetween.com/difference-between-sacred-and-holy/

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  • Thanks for that remark, I find it utterly confusing to have 3 different SE sites about English, looks like I ended up looking at the wrong one.
    – Balázs
    Apr 12, 2017 at 12:13
  • Just want to add more information for saint. In Christianity(not Catholic) "Saint" is used to described any believers of Jesus Christ.
    – Albert
    Oct 23, 2018 at 4:09
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Im sorry im late) Holiness is an attribute of the Divine.

Holy - possessing Divine qualities or unique gracious properties, close or consecrated to God, marked by the Divine presence. Saint - a person acknowledged as holy or virtuous and regarded in Christian faith as being in heaven after death.

Sacred - usually means specific objects and actions dedicated to God or gods, and used in religious rituals, sacred actions. The meanings of the concepts of the holy and the sacred partially overlap, however, the sacred expresses to a greater extent the religious purpose of the subject than its internal properties, emphasizes its separation from the worldly, the need for a special relationship to it.

Sacral - unlike previous concepts, the sacral appeared not in the religious, but in the scientific vocabulary and is used to describe all religions, including paganism, original beliefs and mythology

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