Get the Word! Podcast Episode: Fate or Destiny?


Audio Transcript
Greetings nerds. It’s Mike, host of Get the Word! Don’t worry, I’m a nerd too so… I mean it as a term of endearment. I’ve always been a nerd. I guess it was just my fate. Or was it my destiny? Hmmm. In this episode we’ll dive into both words to figure out the best word to choose.

In a recent session with a student of mine, I was asked the question: “What is the difference between fate and destiny?”. I didn’t have a good answer! I felt as dumb as a computer terminal with no independent processing capability.

I felt as dumb as the contestants on the great trivia podcast Go Fact Yourself during their What’s the Difference round. Big thanks to Helen Hong and J. Keith van Straaten over at Go Fact Yourself for plugging Get the Word! in a recent episode. I paid them to, but either way much appreciated.

If I recall, with my student, I believe I tried to track down the etymological roots of both words to give me a clue. As I tend to point out in my classes, sometimes words that seem to have overlapping meaning in English come from two disparate origins and therefore entered English at different times… allowing room for both to exist in the language.

However, ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ have more overlap than I’m used to, and both emerged around the same time.

With both fate and destiny we have Latin roots. But they did veer a bit before entering the English lexicon. Let’s get into it.

According to one source, both ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ popped up in the English language in the same century, the 14th century. Some evidence suggests that ‘destiny’ appeared first, in the middle of the century. So let’s start there.

‘Destiny’ is defined as ‘the events that will necessarily happen to a particular person or thing in the future’. A secondary definition from Oxford reads this way: the hidden power believed to control what will happen in the future - semi colon - fate!

So without even looking at a thesaurus, one can define the word ‘destiny’ with the word ‘fate’.

‘Destiny’ appears to have come from Old French, and before that from a Latin word that can be translated to ‘make firm’ or ‘establish’. To make firm. To establish. Hmmm, so is a person in control of their own destiny or not? Is your destiny already laid out for you by a force out of your control? Must you then reach your destiny through your own actions? The examples from Oxford may or may not provide any clarity: “she was unable to control her own destiny” and “he believes in destiny”. You have the choice to believe in destiny.

Etymonline also gives ‘fate’ as part of its definition of ‘destiny’, and also has this fantastically worded line: “the irresistible tendency of certain events to come about’ - semi colon - “inexorable force that shapes and controls lives and events”. That which is predetermined and sure to come true! That Old French root translates to ‘purpose’ and ‘intent’. Intent! The intent of whom? Can another human create one’s destiny for another? Or must it be set in motion from up above? (sound). No not Uncle Larry who lives in your attic; I’m talking about some sort of god, some sort of higher power. Intent. A very interesting word to see come up in my research.

The mid 15th century has a sense given as follows “what is to befall any person or thing in the future”. Okay, so you can’t change your destiny, right? It is what will happen in the future. Doesn’t ‘befall’ typically have a negative connotation attached to it? That something bad will happen to someone? We’ll get more into that when we talk about the word ‘fate’.

To help make a distinction between the two words, put simply, I just remember that ‘destiny’ and ‘destination’ have the same root. Your destiny comes to fruition fully once you reach your destination.

There is a LOT to be said about ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’. A discussion dating as far back as any of us could possibly imagine, I’m sure. If you’re looking for a philosophical discussion around fatalism and free will; the Stoics; Determinism; the influential beliefs of Friedrich Nietzshche on the subject, then, well, you’ve come to the wrong podcast. I can’t even grasp easily the difference between fate and destiny! I highly recommend the Making Sense Podcast with Sam Harris. Truly thought provoking discussions.

After the break, we’ll pick apart ‘fate’ a bit more and open up the fact cabinet. You have the free will to switch podcasts now, but I hope you’ll stick around.

— Break —

Okay, let’s look at fate. In Islam, fate or ‘qadar’ is the decree of God. There definitely is a kind of ‘decision from the gods’ quality to fate. FATE: “one’s lot or destiny or one’s guiding spirit”. Also from Latin for “prophetic declaration of what MUST be; oracle; prediction”. Although ‘predict’ in modern English has a sense of ‘estimation’ or ‘guessing’, the Latin root of ‘predict’ is translated to something more like ‘made known beforehand’ or ‘declared’. Often ‘fate’ is in a bad sense in Latin: “bad luck; ill fortune; mishap, ruin; a pest or plague!”. (etymonline)

Fate comes from Latin, yes, but there is a deeper Proto Indo European root translating to: “to speak; to tell; to say”.

In the 1580s we have the sense (or meaning) of “one of the three goddesses (Clotho, Lachesis [ˈläkəsəs], and Atropos [ˈatrəˌpäs]) who determine the course of a human life. This comes from the ancient Greek mythology tale of the Moirai [ˈmoirī], often known in English as the Fates. In the tale, these three goddesses preside over the lives of humans and determine their ‘destinies’! … in particular, the individual’s allotment of misery and suffering.

So why 1580s as the emergence of this use of fate in the English language? This tale dates back to well before the 16th century. Well, several sources tell us that this tale of Greek mythology was not translated into English, or at the very least not put into English print, until the 1580s. Ngram, which tracks the use of words in print dating all the way back to the year 1500, confirms this information. 1587 to be exact.

However, I did find mention of Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos in a scanned copy of a book entitled The Golden Booke of the Leaden Goddes. Wherein is Described the Vayne Imaginations of Heathē (heathen)  Pagans, and Counterfeit Christians, which has a print date of 1577. ( Upon a little bit of research I can confirm that this dated word counterfaict is indeed related to the word ‘counterfeit’ or having the sense of ‘not genuine’. )

So, if I had to make an effort to differentiate the two terms, I would say that fate can be about the present whereas destiny is more about the future(?). You have to reach your destiny, but when something happens, often when something goes wrong, you can blame it on the hands of fate.

What are your thoughts? Write into the podcast. help me out here!

— Fact Cabinet —

Let’s open up the fact cabinet. Here’s a sack of fairy dust I picked up at a Ren Fair some years back. Maybe if I try to sprinkle some on my bust of King Louis XIV it’ll make the bust come to life or something. I’d love to gab with Louis about what it was like to reign over an entire country at the age of 4. You know, I have heard, though, that only a real fairy has the power to use this dust. Oh well, let’s give it a shot. What’s the worst that can happen?

Wow. A fairy the size of Tinker Bell just beat me up and stole my fairy dust. How the? What the?

Oh well. I shouldn’t have been hoarding precious fairy dust to begin with.

Did you know that the word ‘fairy’ and ‘fate’ are related words? That’s right, it traces all the way back to that same Proto Indo European root meaning ’speak / tell / say’… and the Latin ‘fata’ or ‘the Fates’ plural form of ‘fatum’ “That which is ordained”.

One theory for the connection posits that in Roman mythology, beautiful women possessing supernatural powers (who may or may not have been the size of Tinkerbell, I couldn’t find that information) appeared in the homes of newborn babies. These magic women would then decide on the fate of said newborn, and then fly away. The idea of ‘birth fairies’ can be found in many different myths and different folklore throughout Europe. We seem to have this trend throughout cultures, this desire to believe that our lives are predetermined, and, well, the physical manifestation of such a fate-determining being present at the birth of a newborn seems to have satiated the desire to figure out how this predetermination comes to be.

Here’s another item, although, I don’t know how it got in my fact cabinet. It’s one of my receipts. A receipt from when I hired a moirologist for my pet parakeet’s funeral. You see, a moirologist is a professional mourner. Someone hired to mourn at a funeral. And no, I’m not just bragging. There’s a reason why I mention it.

Perhaps you recognize that first syllable. That word, Moira, is related to the Greek mythology tale I mentioned early, about the three Fates, the three goddesses of fate. The term ‘moira’ became a word associated with fate AND destiny. The choirs of ancient Greek tragedies were practicing moirology when the principal singer would begin mourning and then the chorus would join in. Singing is often associated with moirology to this day!

One of those goddesses of fate, Atropos, chose the manner of each person’s death. When the mortal’s time was up on Earth, she would cut that person’s life-thread with a pair of shears. Guess who the Roman equivalent to Atropos was in ancient Roman mythology. Morta, or in other words, the dead one. We still see this Latin root in many words in English. Mortality. Mortal. Mortgage, which translates to literally a ‘dead pledge’. Mortician, etc etc.

This term, moirology, seems to have been coined in 1868, in order to put an English word to a profession that existed far before the 19th century. I already mentioned the Greeks… and evidence suggests that professional funeral singers were found in Ancient Egypt as well. There seems to be clear evidence of this based on certain hieroglyphics and accompanying images that were left behind.

Professional mourners can be found all over the planet. In recent years, a talented photographer named Ioanna Sakellaraki [MEE-anna skayla-RAK-ee] traveled to the Mani peninsula of Southern Greece to document the petering population of female professional mourners there who are keeping alive a long held tradition helping families grieve. They also see their work as helping to accompany the dead on their journey to the afterlife. The songs they sing, or laments, are referred to as ‘fate songs’.  The moirology tradition on the Mani peninsula will soon need its own fate song, however, as the women keeping this tradition alive are fast approaching their own mortality, with no one from younger generations to take their place. Many of the women Sakellaraki [skayla-RAK-ee] photographed are approaching 100 years old!

Go to the website to witness stunningly beautiful footage of one of these traditional Mani peninsula mourning laments being performed. It’s haunting.

Performing Greek Moirologia in Mani Peninsula from Ioanna Sakellaraki on Vimeo.

While the tradition may be slowly disappearing in Mani, similar traditions can certainly be found in many other parts of the world. Perhaps professional mourners are part of your culture. Write in to the podcast and tell us all about it!

The link to Sakellaraki’s [skayla-RAK-ee] beautiful photographs, the project entitled The Truth is in the Soil, can be found in the show notes.

— End Fact Cabinet —

That’s all for today’s episode. Make sure to follow us on social media. We have a linktree to make it is easy to find all our material. There you can find links to the English Sessions website, to Twitter, Tik Tok, Instagram, Facebook. You can find a way to support Get the Word! and The English Sessions. Make sure to find our Anchor page where you can subscribe to bonus content from Get the Word! for only 99 cents (USD) per month! Doing so will get you ad-free episodes of Get the Word! as well as occasional bonus content. It’s also a way to support content creators directly which helps us to break away from the soul sucking advertising based model. Save me from selling my soul, people. If you’re a Spotify user, make sure to head on over to the Spotify Get the Word! page where you will find access to an episode I released recently that is specifically for Spotify, a re-release of the episode on ‘ska’, in which you can hear all of the songs I mention throughout the episode, embedded within the episode. It turned out great, and really takes you down a journey of music history. Give it a listen.

Podcast artwork by Bruno Sanches. You can find a link to his work in the show notes. Music performed by the Monroeville Music Center. Production, editing and research performed by me, Mike Butler. Write in to the podcast and give us your comments. That email again is We’d love to hear from you.


Show Notes:

The Truth Is in the Soil:

Oxford dictionary

Performing Greek Moirologia in Mani Peninsula:

Every episode:

Music performed by Monroeville Music Center:

And Kevin Macleod

Artwork for Get the Word! created by Bruno Sanches:



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