I find them equally dramatic but is the difference perhaps that wail is more general while keen must be in response to the death of someone you were close to?

  • What do you mean exactly? They are two different words which basically mean two different things.
    – Cardinal
    Apr 11, 2020 at 21:21
  • It's possible to Google differences.. found an interesting wiki here
    – user19179
    Apr 11, 2020 at 21:29
  • @Cardinal It's interesting that you find them completely different. Could you please enlighten me on their differences, and more specifically what makes each of them unique? (I am confused because both verbs can mean to wail in grief for a dead person.) Apr 12, 2020 at 12:02
  • As @James K mentioned in his answer, the word "keen" is not commonly used to mean "wail" and I had never encountered it before. I googled the term and didn't find any strong connection between the two. That's why I said that, but I was wrong. :-)
    – Cardinal
    Apr 12, 2020 at 12:33
  • 1
    @Cardinal No worries. Thank you for your input! Apr 12, 2020 at 14:51

1 Answer 1


"Wail" is a moderately common word for a type of cry.

"Keen" is a rather rare word (I'd probably understand it in context, but I needed a dictionary to check) with a proper technical meaning (I type of Irish lament) and a more general sense of a screaming wail for the dead (and an extended use of meaning to make a sound like that).

Consider your audience. If you are writing about the funeral traditions of Ireland then "keen" is the correct word. If you want to enliven your writing by some rare synonyms, that is allowed. But for 90% of the time, "wail" is the word that would be best understood by most people.

  • Thank you, James. Would you say that keen is more specific and must be used in response to the death of someone you knew well, while wail is more general? I am asking because according to Lexico Oxford, to keen means to wail in grief for a dead person; sing a keen while to wail is defined as giving a cry of pain, grief, or anger. Apr 12, 2020 at 12:22
  • It is pretty rare, but "The keening cry of the air-raid siren" seems possible as a metaphor. I would say that you would need a reason to use "keen": either you are writing about actual Irish funeral traditions, or you are writing in a deliberately poetic and metaphorical way.
    – James K
    Apr 12, 2020 at 12:32

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