Emigrant or Immigrant? Are You Coming or Going?


These two words sound almost exactly alike but have different meanings: So how do you decide between emigrant or immigrant?

Let’s check out another pair of homophones! How do you know whether you’re talking about an emigrant or immigrant?

Homophones are pairs of words that sound (-phone) the same (homo-) but have different meanings. We hear all the time in the news about immigrants. Some overly-political folks like to immediately vilify those who are not natives of this country while (conveniently) ignoring that their families weren’t originally natives, either.

Funny how that works, isn’t it?

What both words have in common is a relation to moving. As the headline suggests, you have to ask if you — or the person you’re speaking about — is literally “coming or going.”


Emigrant is the older of the two words, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a wonderful resource. The OED not only defines words but also describes their origin into the English language.

It defines an emigrant as “one who quits a country or region to settle in another.” It’s important to note, however, that one who emigrates doesn’t necessarily do so permanently.

Emigrant entered the English language in 1754, from Latin emigrantem, the present participle of emigrare, which meant to “move away.”

You emigrate from the country you’re in when you relocate to a different country.


It seems that most of the time, when we hear one of the two words, immigrant is the one being used. People like to talk — and love to complain — about immigrants.

They are people who have come to a country.

OED tells us that immigrant entered the English language 38 years after emigrant, in 1792. It speculates that it might have been based on the French word of the same spelling, which traces back to the Latin word immigrantem, the present participle of immigrarem meaning “to remove, go into, move in.”

 If you’re a permanent resident of a country and you meet someone who has relocated to that country, that person is an immigrant.

While I have your attention, I should point out what should be obvious: You shouldn’t assume that an immigrant is automatically an “illegal immigrant.” Some style guides, like the AP Stylebook, suggests the phrase should be avoided, in fact, because people are not “illegal.” They suggest the use of “undocumented immigrant,” which accomplishes the same thing without implying that the person is somehow “illegal.”

Is there an easy way to tell them apart?

I like to use simple memory tricks like word or letter association when I encounter words that might otherwise mix things up. In this case, until I learned the difference and no longer needed the help, I focused on the letter E.

Since an emigrant refers to someone who is leaving a native country, I associated the starting E with the word exit. Once I did that, I didn’t need an association for the I.

If you are the type who requires a memory aid for both words in a pair, you could consider that an Immigrant is someone who moves in.

So an immigrant is one who is coming in and an emigrant is one who is leaving.

But what about the discrepancy in Ms?

Why does one word have one M while the other has two? Chalk it up to the joys of English!

If you absolutely must have a memory aid for the spelling, I’ll offer this rather weak suggestion. Think of an immigrant who comes to this country from, say, Ireland. In this country, we’d probably refer to them as an “Irish American.” When you move in to a country, you may end up with such a two-word ethnic descriptor. So remember an immigrant with two Ms if that helps.

That’s the best I can offer on that one.

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.

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