David Bowie might have steered us wrong on this one, folks. And I suppose “steering” is a part of the problem. When distinguishing between “maze” vs. “labyrinth,” some sources argue that these words are synonyms, but it’s important to note that many others do not.
Yep, some word comparisons are simpler than others, and this is one where there remains some disagreement. Or if not “disagreement,” we can frame this as “everyday use” vs. “pro-level word savvy.”
Here’s what you need to know:
- A “maze” is a puzzle that you need to figure out. There are wrong turns, dead ends, and often multiple pathways to get where you need to go. The word for this is “multicursal.” In a maze, there is a way in and a way out, and these are different places.
A “labyrinth” can be argued to be a variation of a maze, but it has only one entrance/exit. The goal may be to find the center, to find one’s way from the center out, or to find one’s way to the middle and then all the way back out. It may wend, and it may wind. It may be tortuous, and it may be torturous. But however you describe it, a labyrinth is “unicursal,” meaning it has only one singular path. A labyrinth can be as complex and as intricately designed as a maze; however, a true labyrinth, according to many sources, is a journey of discovery, not of trickery. Dead ends and wrong turns aren’t usually a part of a classic labyrinth.
What about the history of these words? Will etymology help us out?
- The word “labyrinth” came into English in the 15th century, deriving from the Greek word labyrinthos. Of course, if one were to talk of Greeks and labyrinths, you might immediately think of the mythical minotaur-hiding structure of King Minos of Crete. Was that structure truly a maze or a labyrinth, though? Fabulous question. It seemed to have only entrance/exit, and it was a journey of discovery to find and kill (or be killed by) the minotaur stuck inside. However, it did seem to be a puzzle to figure out, with twists, turns, and dead ends. If it was one singular path, Theseus wouldn’t have needed the string to find his way out, would he? So apparently this “maze” vs. “labyrinth” confusion has been around for a long time. Maybe it was something lost in translation.
The word “maze” first entered the English language in the time of Middle English, and in these early days, “maze” meant “delusion” or “confusion.” It is likely related to “amaze,” though its linguistic origins are a bit confusing in itself.
Yes, when we are first learning the definition of “labyrinth” as children, we are told it’s a synonym of “maze.” Many people use these words interchangeably, and many dictionaries will call this acceptable. However, if you want to dig deeper, there’s more complexity there than first meets the eye. Like schools and shoals of fish, there’s everyday use and then there are the tiny distinctions that truly set them apart.
As for David Bowie’s labyrinth, I don’t know what to say. There’s a lot that confounds logic in that one. I’m not convinced this movie should be the guide to correct English language use, but then again, David Bowie is one to provoke lots of questions. Maybe this is just one more.
Join 1,000+ subscribers and sign-up for my writing and editing email newsletter for more tips like this.