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What is the difference between hug and embrace?

Hug:

Squeeze (someone) tightly in one's arms, typically to express affection.

Embrace:

Hold (someone) closely in one's arms, esp. as a sign of affection: "Aunt Sophie embraced her warmly".

Is it only about strength or are there more subtle differences I don't quite grasp?

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    You mean subtle difference you don't quite embrace, or hug? – Cerberus Jan 24 '13 at 10:46
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The main difference is the level of affection shown in each.

You would hug a family member or close friend as a sign of being pleased to see them, but you would embrace a lover, wife/husband or boy/girlfriend.

  • I think this captures the difference well. I don't think I'd ever tell my kids, "It's time to leave now; go embrace your Aunt Lois." – J.R. Jan 24 '13 at 13:41
  • @J.R. Particularly if you didn't like her very much! – spiceyokooko Jan 24 '13 at 13:53
  • Isn't 'embraced' used in non-affectionate situations, as well? eg the embrace between two society types where they grab each others shoulders/arms, and fake kiss both cheeks – mcalex Jan 24 '13 at 17:16
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    @mcalex Agreed, English is a subtle language. – spiceyokooko Jan 24 '13 at 17:35
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    @mcalex Embrace does imply a level of closeness greater than hugging, and can often be used almost as a superlative of "accept" - "I don't just accept our differences, but embrace them as a key to our success." – BrianH May 6 '13 at 21:37
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To "embrace" can also mean to adopt a philosophy -- "She embraced shopping therapy with great enthusiasm."

"Hug" wouldn't make sense in that context.

When applied to personal contact, the answer about level of affection is apt.

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embrace can also be used in other contexts (for instance, when someone accepts/converts to some religion, we say "he embraced Islam").

hug, though, is merely a physical action, to get someone in arms.

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    There's an upvoted answer from more than two years ago that says this already. – Nathan Tuggy Mar 17 '16 at 20:23
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    The ship hugged the shoreline. (hug..."To keep as close as possible to" - OED) – Alan Carmack Mar 17 '16 at 23:00
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The Oxford English Dictionary recognizes no difference between hug and embrace in their primary meanings, and neither does not the source you are apparently quoting.

I think the answer that says The main difference is the level of affection shown in each is being too strict regarding hug and embrace. Now, hug may have a wider application, as in the bear hugged the man before it killed him (!) (Note: we would not use embraced as a synonym in that sentence); nevertheless, regarding human hugs and embraces, I'll say there may be some trend or thought in some people's minds, but this is not set in stone.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines hug

I. 1. a. transitive To clasp or squeeze tightly in the arms: usually with affection = embrace

It also notes the figurative usage:

I. 1. d. figurative To cherish or cling to (an opinion, belief, etc.) with fervour or fondness.

however, I agree that nowadays I have probably only heard embrace used in this way. But the OED does not mark this as obsolete or archaic or anything.

Then there is the usage meaning 'to cling to', used for ships and other things such as pathways.

4 transitive (orig. Nautical) To keep as close as possible to (the shore, etc.); to ‘cling to’.

Embrace does not have this last meaning, as far as I am aware. Interestingly the etymology that the OED gives for hug is..."unknown".


As for embrace, the OED provides

1 a. transitive To clasp in the arms, usually as a sign of fondness or friendship.

There are many figurative uses, including

2 h. To adopt (a doctrine, opinions, religion, etc.); often with the notion ‘to accept joyfully’. Also, to attach oneself to (a party, cause, etc.)

which is similar to one of the figurative uses of hug.

But as for the literal meaning in terms of to clasp in the arms, there is no description in the OED that says that one is more affectionate than the other.

Indeed, the OED flatly states hug = embrace.

So feel free to embrace your friend or relative and hug your lover.

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