‘Wildly’ encroaches on the territory of ‘widely’

Does the price of oil fluctuate wildly or widely? These two words are often used interchangeably – can they actually be synonyms?


Is ice cream widely or wildly popular? Does the price of oil fluctuate wildly or widely? These two words are often used interchangeably – can they actually be synonyms? 

Merriam-Webster defines widely as “over or through a wide area,” “to a great extent,” or “over a broad range.” At its root is the idea of distance. Wildly is “extremely” or “in a wild manner,” with wild defined as “not subject to restraint or regulation.” This adverb, then, connotes unpredictability and intensity.

Some sentences clearly demand one word or the other. “She is wildly in love” makes sense – her feelings are passionate and deep. “She is widely in love” doesn’t.

At times, both words might seem to be appropriate, and then meanings can get muddled. The price of oil, for example, has varied between $19 a barrel (in inflation-adjusted dollars) and $187 in the last 25 years. One could make an argument that the price of oil fluctuates widely, given this difference. But one could also describe it as fluctuating wildly, since the price swings up and down irregularly, sometimes doubling or halving in only one or two months. Whether you choose widely or wildly here depends on what you want to emphasize.

Since around 2000, wildly has been encroaching on the territory of widely. Google’s Ngram viewer shows that until recently, the phrase widely popular was used much more frequently than wildly popular. In 1997 (in American English) and 2008 (in British English), wildly popular overtook it. Ngrams for widely/wildly different and vary widely/wildly show a similar trend – the use of widely is decreasing, and wildly increasing.  

I would argue that wildly is on the increase partly because wild no longer represents something to be avoided. The Oxford English Dictionary’s historical definitions of these words are negative: Wildly is “irregularly; in disorder or confusion,” “without moral restraint; dissolutely, licentiously,” and “without the refinement or orderliness of culture or training.” Wild land was “waste, desert, desolate”; a wild person was “uncivilized,” “rebellious,” or “taking one’s own way in defiance of moral obligation.” 

In the mid-20th century, however, the meanings flipped. Wild became slang for “remarkable, unusual, exciting,” and wildly lost its association with moral or cultural disorder. If you loved someone “wildly” in the 18th century, it was a frantic, destructive passion. Today, some people promise to love each other wildly in wedding vows.

Widely may work as well or even better in a given sentence, but it sounds a bit dull, a word for textbooks or business emails. Wildly is more dramatic, and English speakers seem to like that.  

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