Is there a substantial difference between the adjectives "cranial" and "cerebral"? Are these ones interchangeable in a not-so-medical context?


If you go by the meaning of their nominal cognates, there is a substantial difference: the adjective "cranial" derives from Latin "cranium" (skull) while the adjective "cerebral" is a derivate of the Latin "cerebrum" (brain).

But I am aware that this isn't your question. - What contexts are you thinking of?

I can think of at least one not-so-medical context where both of these adjectives are not interchangeable: a paleontologist speaks of "cranial fossils", he wouldn't speak of "cerebral fossils". But that's obvious.

Urban Dictionary provides definitions for colloquial uses of these adjectives and gives this interesting example sentence:

"He wanted to be cerebral but came across very cranial" (Art. "cranial")

According to the dictionary, a cranial person is stupid, while a cerebral person is an attentive and intelligent person.

But is this alleged colloquialism common anywhere or is it just an urban myth?

  • 4
    Educated native speakers understand that cranium and cranial refer to the bones of the skull and cerebral to thought and mind. To use the word cranial to mean "stupid" is intended to be a witticism. The notion that a thick skull is associated with being mentally slow is a commonplace. The word cranial invokes that commonplace, using a word that is a little above the "grade reading level" of the average speaker, with the intention of making the "witty" speaker seem smarter and the thick-skulled one even less intelligent, register underscoring the disparity in intelligence. Jul 17 '17 at 11:08
  • To add to the observations about everyday use, most of the time cranial is used without any figurative sense, simply the anatomical sense "pertaining to the skull". Whereas the force of cerebral is often "intellectual, not connected to the physical or real world", and of a person's profession, mainly involving academic, theoretical questions. Jul 17 '17 at 14:09

As @Ashwin states, in a medical context "cranial" refers to the skull, whereas "cerebral" refers to the brain. In other words they describe different bits of the body, and therefore are not interchangeable.

In more colloquial usage, "cerebral" tends to mean the brain as a source of thoughts (in other words, "the mind"), rather than the squishy physical organ. However, "cranial" still generally refers to the skull or the head.

So again, not interchangeable.

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