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I saw the word foe in a book and the word enemy in a comic-book. Is there a difference between these two words? Maybe foe is more similar that adversary, opponent, rival.

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Dictionary says that foe = enemy. But then if I recall all the instances, 'foe' is the word used in journalism, news or more politically where 'enemy' would be considered rude or offensive. So, 'foe' is a polite way to say 'enemy'!

Note that the dictionary mentions 'foe' as an old-fashioned or formal term.

The word 'adversary' does mean 'enemy' but it also means an opponent that does not necessarily be your enemy; so is with rival which also means someone who competes.

To conclude, use these words carefully. They are not always interchangeable.

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    "Foe" also appears in idioms, like "friend or foe". Oct 8 '15 at 12:00
  • I'd say that foe is a more dignified term than enemy. You can say that someone is a worthy foe. Nov 30 '15 at 11:22
  • You could improve this more by reflecting on "fiend" which is etymologically related and the actual cognate to German "Feind" (enemy). In German, "Feind" is a very negative word, carrying connotation of "evil", and way worse than "Rivale" oder "Widersacher". I think what in English makes "foe" more palatable today is that the word is all but obsolete in its original use, so it veils its negative connotation behind the general reader's ignorance. Sep 20 '20 at 19:05
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They mean (roughly) the same, but they are not the same word.

Consider powerful car and strong car. We usually use powerful car rather than strong car, even though strong and powerful (usually) mean the same thing. (The same goes for strong/powerful tea/computer/drug/etc.) One choice usually sounds better in a given occasion/register/context.

It's not easy to point out all the possible subtleties of words in all possible uses, especially when it's used with other words. My general idea for the two words is: enemy is a common word; foe is generally used in literary language.


Additional information: I posted this answer because I wanted to point out that it's more than about the word itself (besides a concern about "'foe' is a polite way to say 'enemy'!" in another answer, which could be misleading as well). Our choices of words are usually influenced by collocation and contexts. Simply stating that "'foe' is the word used journalism, news or more politically where 'enemy' would be considered rude or offensive", though somewhat true (more or less), could be misleading.

Consider this phrase: enemy of the state. We normally use enemy of the state. Calling someone a foe of the state may be possible, but it would sound somewhat uncommon, unless it's used together with other collocates, e.g. He's neither friend nor foe of the state.

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    PS. I posted this answer because I don't really think that "'foe' is a polite way to say 'enemy'", unless "polite way" is used to mean "euphemism", but "polite way" and "euphemism", again, are not the same. Oct 8 '15 at 12:04
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    Strong is utterly different than powerful to me. A thread can be strong but never powerful. And, I used the exclamatory mark - humor intended, if, by chance, you missed it!
    – Maulik V
    Oct 8 '15 at 12:07
  • @MaulikV Strong is utterly different from powerful to you--that's good for you! I take it that you can handle the nuances between the two words well, even though it's common for learners to misuse the two words; it's also common that people use the two words interchangeably in some occasions; some dictionaries define powerful as strong, and your favorite one also defines strong as very powerful. Oct 12 '15 at 5:09
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FOE: A person who appears to be close to you and befriends you just to be in the place where they can destroy you and/ or your character ( A friendly foe) ENEMY: A person who is outright against you and is willing to war with you to dominate you.

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    Please reference your sources.
    – Glorfindel
    Jan 9 '18 at 18:19
  • This was a good contribution even if it isn't a complete answer. Like I commented above, foe is all but obsolete and only maintains some remnant of idiomatic use, and the connection with friend is one of them. Sep 20 '20 at 19:07
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I will try a more pointed and complete answer. For nearly every word-sense, English has two words, one Germanic and one Latin. "Enemy" is Latin, and "foe" is Germanic. The Germanic is older and tends to be falling into obsolescence and archaic idiomatic use only. This is what happened to "foe". Nobody uses this word today for its original general meaning. Only in idioms and metaphoric abductions. This is why journalists can use it for "rival" as the general readers do not recognize the negative meaning in it any more. And this is why it has survived in the idiom "friendly foe" which was helped staying preserved by its being an alliteration.

But to really understand the semantic field here you should do some back and forth translation with other Germanic languages, e.g., German which does not have this Latin duplication of all word senses. So, here "enemy" translates to "Feind" and in German "Feind" has that negative meaning way beyond rival / Rivale. Now if you translate Feind back to English, you must see the cognate "fiend" and then you see what happens? "Fiend" connotes so much evil that it sucked up some of the connotation of evil from foe. Foe is related to "feud" so its someone you can maintain a deep and long relationship of enmity even in truce.

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    Nicely stated. If any or all of this is from an external source it would be good to include it.it to further validate this as the best answer. And welcome to ELL.
    – user19179
    Sep 20 '20 at 23:49
  • Thanks. It comes right out of my knucklehead, haha. ... except for the etymology, OK, will add that from wiktionary. Sep 21 '20 at 1:44
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a foe is someone that pretends to be a friend to destroy you like a Judas, or

an opponent, like when you play a game.There're on the same lines but this

could be a pretender, which to me is worse because their goal is to destroy

you.

The reason that I know that I looked up the meaning because I desired to

know what Psalms 37 meant when it speaks about when the wicked, even my

enemies and my foes, came up against me to eat up my flesh, and I decided to

look up the meaning of both words enemies, and foes

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  • This adds nothing to the existing answers.
    – Chenmunka
    Sep 10 at 14:17

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