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The nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” includes a line

Iron and steel will bend and bow

To me as a non-native speaker, both “bend” and “bow” evoke essentially the same kind of mental image in this context. Is there a difference which can be put into words? Or are they fully synonymous here, and just combined for the sake of the rhyme?

Writing this I realized that while apparently both words work for iron and steel (perhaps with some artistic liberty?), I'd only bow to a king and bend rays of light using a lens, not the other way round. But I don't know why, except that I'm copying phrases I have read in these contexts. So perhaps an explanation of situations where just one word is appropriate can help point out distinguishing nuances for situations where both are possible.

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Bend is a much more common word than Bow.

There are several related words written "bow"

There is is /bau/ rhyming with cow (noun, verb) which is a lowering your body to show humility, for example before a King.

There is /bau/ (noun) The front part of a boat.

There is /bou/ rhyming with know (noun) a knot made with loops of string, for example to tie up a shoes or a gift.

There is /bou/ (noun) Used to shoot an arrow, or play a violin

There is /bou/ (verb) meaning "bend". This is quite rare, as it can nearly always be replaced by the word "bend".

The verb "bow", meaning "bend", is normally used without an object:

The beams holding up the roof are bowing

Bend can be used both with or without an object:

The robot bent the steel bar with ease.

The beams holding up the roof are bending.

(Transitive use of "bow" is possible, but even rarer)

Some slight difference is that "bowing" suggests gentle curving, whereas "bend" might suggest an angular bend, or a fold.

In the rhyme, they are nearly fully synonymous. They are used for the alliteration. Using redundant words like this is technically called "pleonasm". For example if I say "You will get a free gift." The word "gift" implies "free", but I might choose to use the redundant word for style or emphasis.

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    I think this is a good answer so won't add my own. But I think the distinction between bend and bow has less to do with "gentle" and more to do with curves vs. angles. Bow raises visions of curved things and bend of angles (which you mentioned). I'm also not convinced they are completely redundant in the poem if you think about the potential imagery. – joiedevivre Dec 14 '17 at 19:36
  • Yes, "curve" is a good word to mention in this context. – James K Dec 14 '17 at 19:40
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    I think bow is more synonymous with sag than bend; that is, bowing is a certain kind of bending. Bend is more generic and multidimensional: a road or river can bend; a sewing needle can bend; a gooseneck microphone or garden hose can bend. The beams holding up that old roof may be bowing, as you say, but the upturned shingles would be bending as they flapped in the high wind. – J.R. Dec 14 '17 at 20:23
  • See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wood_warping – default.kramer Dec 14 '17 at 20:59
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Not bow! Bow!

You are being caught by a homograph. The Bridge does not bow (rhymes with "cow"); it bows (rhymes with "lows"). It bends under tension, like an archer's bow.

A bend could be a sharp bend, a graceful bend, a zig-zag bend, anything. It could be natural to the bent item, or it could have been caused by impact, heat, gravity, anything. It might be permanent. If an object is bowed, it is a graceful distortion over its entire length, caused by a force acting on the ends, and when the force is removed, the object will snap back to its original shape. If you think of the behavior of Robin Hood's bow or Pablo Casal's bow under the tension of strings, you'll understand.

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    I had to remove my upvote after your edit. Your definition of "bow" is too limited. Not all bowed objects will snap back to their original shape. Some are bowed by design (bowed trusses). Some have been bowed by weight and time and will never be restored. I'd also have to question whether "bowed legs" were always a "graceful distortion." – joiedevivre Dec 15 '17 at 10:42
  • Wow @joiedevivre, you're really strict, especially given your user-name! And after Googling images of tibia varus, yeah, I think it looks graceful. In the words of Bartholomew Quint, "I like to go swimmin'/with bow-legged women/and swim between their legs/Swim between their legs/Swim between their legs." – Malvolio Dec 15 '17 at 17:09
  • The force may also be perpendicular along the length such as gravity bowing a shelf. – Wes Toleman Dec 16 '17 at 10:58
  • @WesToleman -- that seems legit too. Or an archer bowing an actual bow... – Malvolio Dec 16 '17 at 15:55
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The Shaker song Simple Gifts contains a similar pair of words:

When true simplicity is gained

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed

I believe this phrase refers to bowing at the waist and kneeling (or bending the knee) both physical symbols of submission.

I believe that by using both bend and bow together, London Bridge is referring to both physically warping materials, and also metaphorically to submission in the social/human sense.

In any case, both words have several different meanings as you can tell from the other answers.

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