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Today I took an English test , in which I was asked to choose between assimilate and imitate as a word which closely resembles the phrase ‘to make a copy of’. I chose assimilate , because in my opinion imitate means ‘to copy someone or something’ . It probably does not stand for ‘to make a copy of’ . The word assimilate , in my opinion is very close to ‘to make a copy of’. I also saw the definition of assimilate in the Collins English Dictionary , which has one of the meanings as :

“to become or cause to become similar.”

According to me , the difference between the definition of ‘assimilate’ and ‘imitate’ is that when we use imitate , we do not ‘make a copy of something’ , we ‘try to copy that thing’. However , there is quite similarity between these two meanings and I would like to know your opinion on which choice is really correct.

Thank you !

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"Assimilate" does not mean "to make a copy of". These are the primary definitions:

assimilate (v):
1a. to take into the mind and thoroughly understand
1b. to take in and utilize as nourishment : to absorb into the system
2. to absorb into the cultural tradition of a population or group

Apparently it can mean something like "to make similar", but to me this feels awkward and forced, and almost certainly would be confused with one of the primary definitions. In this example sentence (from the dictionary link), I understand from context what the writer is trying to say, but I don't understand why Joseph Conrad chose to use this particular phrasing:

[The capacity for detachment is] the only faculty that seems to assimilate man to the immortal gods.

However, even here I suspect the meaning is more to be similar rather than to make similar. It's saying that this characteristic (of detachment) likens men to gods rather than turns them into gods.

Either way, I would not think "assimilate" a very good word to mean "copy" ... but then "imitate" is not such a good choice either. Not because the definition is wrong but because it has generally negative connotations. People imitate others either to mock them, or because they lack original thought.

If you wish to say that you intend to deliberately repeat something that someone else has already done (such as an experiment), try repeat, reproduce, duplicate, or replicate.

If you want a word that means to recreate in the style of, but less negative than imitate, try emulate, mirror, echo, or in some cases simulate.

Otherwise if you just want to make an exact copy something (like a document), use copy, duplicate, clone, or replicate.

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  • Thanks a lot for your detailed answer , but what would be the best choice between assimilate and imitate for the phrase ‘to make a copy of’? – Aditi Feb 21 '19 at 15:53
  • @Aditi As I said, neither is correct. I can't give you a good answer to a bad question. – Andrew Feb 21 '19 at 15:56
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    I suspect the question setter thinks imitate can be used to mean make an imitation of. – SamBC Feb 21 '19 at 16:57
  • @SamBC which it does, certainly, but then you still have the same negative connotations with imitation, which generally means "fake". Imitation crab is made from whitefish and seasonings, for example, and is tasty in its own way, but it's still not real crab. – Andrew Feb 21 '19 at 17:02
  • Around here it's called "seafood sticks". – SamBC Feb 21 '19 at 17:33

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