Generally, both "receptacle" and "container" refer to an object that contains some other object(s). What are the differences between these two words? Do they differ in meaning, usage, or origin?

I searched "difference between receptacle and container" in Google but the only two relevant results ([1], [2]) can both be summarized as "They are basically the same thing".

  • "difference between receptacle and container" is not what you should search for on Google. Search for the words individually. Look at the images. Look at dictionary definitions. And tell us that. :)
    – NVZ
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 8:50
  • Thank you @NVZ for your comments. I have edited my question to include the research I have done. I do not consider Google Image results to be helpful since I have seen both words being used in a general sense (an object that can contain some other object(s) instead of referring to any specific type of receptacle/container.).
    – Cosmos Gu
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 8:51
  • 6
    As usual with synonyms, there is an unpredictable range of situations where the two terms are interchangeable, and places where they're definitely not. The things they stack on purpose-built ships are always 'containers' and a coin slot is never a 'container'. Even where they may be swapped, 'receptacle' is in a far higher register. Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 8:53
  • @NVZ I have indeed looked up both words' dictionary definition. Both words have some special usages (for example, "receptacle" can mean "an organ or structure that receives a secretion, eggs, sperm, etc."). But I am more interested in their differences when being used in a general sense.
    – Cosmos Gu
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 8:55
  • 1
    Well, you wouldn't plug a lamp into a "container".
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 11:31

5 Answers 5


Receptacle <-- receives something

Container <-- contains something

Sender <-- sends something

A receiver uses his receptacle to receive something. Then he puts it into his container (memory) to keep it contained and safe.


1375-1425; Middle English (< Old French) < Latin receptāculum reservoir, equivalent to receptā(re) to take again, receive back (frequentative of recipere to receive ) + -culum -cle2

  • “Receptacle <-- receives something” --- I was thinking the same thing, but New Oxford American Dictionary’s first definition for receptacle is “an object or space used to contain something”.
    – Cosmos Gu
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 9:21
  • 2
    That which receives also contains, so there is some overlap. It is all about the usage. A glass jar is a container; put a funnel with a filter in it and use the contraption to make some cream cheese, however, and the jar becomes a receptacle for the whey.
    – konaya
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 10:39
  • While there's a lot of overlap, to my mind, a receptacle is (often) designed to receive something specific whereas a container is (often) more general purpose in the things it can contain.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 12:54

An instructive synonym for receptacle in an electrical sense is socket (discussed in depth here under difference between “socket” and “outlet”). Socket can't usually be a synonym for container.

A major part of the difference in use is to do with the purpose. You can call a litter bin a trash container or a trash receptacle. In the former case you're emphasising storage, in the latter, you're emphasising acceptance.

You may have been a little unlucky with your choice of dictionary. Merriam-Webster has "one that receives and contains something", Cambridge has "a container used for storing or putting objects in" (emphasis mine in both cases).


A trash bin may be called a trash receptacle or a trash container, but a power receptacle would not be called a power container. The "receiving" done by a power receptacle, in my connotation is that it receives the plug from the device to be powered.

There is some overlap but, as others have mentioned, the root of "receptacle" is "receive" and the root of "container" is "contain".

Google Search

  • I just realized that Chris H. posted an answer very similar to mine about 3 hours earlier. I'll leave mine here in-case someone finds a little more enlightenment from it.
    – TecBrat
    Commented Jun 26, 2017 at 15:10

You could look to the common phrase, "place the item in the proper receptacle", and derive that receptacle is a more specified type of container; a container designated to receive a particular item. Consider where trash is sorted by different materials; glass goes into the glass receptacle, paper in the paper receptacle, etc.


The difference is in what the object is used for. When I see "container" I think of something people put stuff into that the want to store for some indefinite period of time, then remove and use. When I see "receptacle" I think of something that people put stuff into for a specific reason, that someone else is going to remove to use for whatever purpose.


I put my leftover dinner in a plastic container so I can take it to work tomorrow.

I dropped the empty can in the aluminum receptacle.

"Receptacle" can also refer to where you plug electrical cords, but, in AE at least, it is more often called an "outlet".

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