The act of standing still: stillness or standstill?

Plots of a neck marker from a 10 minute recording of standing still
Plots of a neck marker from a 10 minute recording of standing still

As mentioned previously (here and here), I have been doing some experiments on standing still in silence. One thing is to do it, another is to talk (or write) about it. Then I need to have words describing what I have been doing.

To start with the simple; the word silence seems to be quite clearly defined as the “lack of sound”, and is similar to the Norwegian word stillhet. There is also the broader concept of stille, which, in addition to quiet, also covers metaphorical uses of the term, e.g. calm, but I do not want to get into more trouble by using that word.

Things do not seem to be as simple when talking about the act of standing still. In Norwegian the word stillstand quite literally means “standing still”, and is clearly (and only?) describing the act of not moving. But what is the best English word to describe this? I don’t think the words inactive or immobile cover what I want to describe. So I have for the last few months used the word stillness to describe the act of standing still. However I have recently learned that this would be more of a metaphorical use of the word. For example, Wiktionary defines stillness as

  1. The quality or state of being still; quietness; silence; calmness; inactivity.
  2. Habitual silence or quiet; taciturnity.

and The Free Dictionary has an even broader definition:

  1. stillness – (poetic) tranquil silence; “the still of the night”
    hush, still
    silence, quiet – the absence of sound; “he needed silence in order to sleep”; “the street was quiet”
    poesy, poetry, verse – literature in metrical form
  2. stillness – calmness without winds
    calmness – an absence of strong winds or rain
  3. stillness – a state of no motion or movement; “the utter motionlessness of a marble statue”
    lifelessness, motionlessness
    state – the way something is with respect to its main attributes; “the current state of knowledge”; “his state of health”; “in a weak financial state”
    fixedness, immobility, stationariness – remaining in place

This is also supported by the Oxford dictionary, which suggests that the adjective still means “not moving or making a sound”. Thus, stillness seems to be too broad for my needs.

On my search in the different dictionaries I have come to realise that the word standstill might be the obvious solution to my problem. I am mainly used to this word in the context of e.g. cars standing still, but it might work also for describing human standstill. A quick search on Google Scholar mainly reveals medical or engineering papers using the word standstill, but that does not mean that it cannot be used to describe lack of human motion. In fact, searching for “standstill biomechanics” gives more than 1000 hits.

So I think my best solution is to use the words silence and standstill to describe the lack of sound and motion, respectively, and to use stillness when referring to both.

Please let me know if you have other interpretations of these words.

Difference between the terms movement and motion

Terminology is always challenging. I have previously written about definitions of actions and gesture several times (e.g. here,  here, and here) and chapter 2 in the book Musical gestures: sound, movement, and meaning (Routledge, 2010).

Movement vs motion

There are, however, two words/terms that I still find very challenging to define properly and to differentiate: movement and motion. In Norwegian, we only have one word (bevegelse) for describing movement/motion, which makes everything much simpler. But when writing in English, which word should be used? And what is the difference?

It only adds to the confusion that Wiktionary defines movement as “physical motion between points in space”. And Wikipedia has a page on motion (in physics), while none of the many movement pages are related to body movement.

During the last years, I have asked many native English speakers about the difference between motion and movement, but have not received any good explanations yet. Many of them think they are slightly different, although this is usually based on their feeling rather than on a proper explanation of the difference. Some native speakers think the two words are the same and can be used interchangeably.

I have also asked researchers working on various types of movement-oriented disciplines about their use of the words, and they often tend to stick to one or the other. From these discussions, I have come to think that people working in biomechanics and physics prefer motion, while people working in physiotherapy, dance and music prefer movement. That motion is a more scientific term is also suggested here. From this, we could assume that motion is related to the measurable displacement of objects, which the term motion capture attest to, while movement refers to the qualities or meaning of the displacement.

Asking Google for help

The above assumptions are, however, only my assumptions. So I thought it would be interesting to see if I could get some more empirical data on the topic. So I decided to use the powers of Google to quantify the differences. Here are some figures from google and google scholar:

search termGoogleGoogle Scholar
movement562 000 0004 120 000
motion144 000 0002 210 000
“body movement”4,830 00083 000
“body motion”1 370 00076 300

So, clearly, movement seems to be used much more frequently than motion in general language, and also in the scientific literature. However, body movement and body motion are used almost the same amount of times in scientific papers.

But what if we search for the use of the two terms in different fields? Then we get these numbers:

search term 1search term 2GoogleGoogle Scholarsearch term 2GoogleGoogle Scholar
music+movement565 000 0001 960 000+motion213 000 0001 110 000
physics+movement136 000 0001 940 000+motion64,100 0001 340 000
mechanics+movement36 400 0001 270 000+motion46 800 0001 140 000
biomechanics+movement6 110 000163 000+motion3 060 000167 000
physiotherapy+movement4 580 00071 200+motion2 530 00038 600
kinesiology+movement1 690 00028 900+motion1 050 00020 100

Again, we see that movement is generally used more than motion, even in physics and mechanics. I am quite surprised that music+motion is used so frequently, particularly since movement has a double meaning in music (i.e. parts of a piece).


What to conclude from all of this? I still do not know what the difference between movement and motion is, and the numbers show that movement is used more than motion also in the disciplines that I thought used motion almost exclusively. Still, I like the idea that motion is used to describe physical properties, while movement is used to describe the qualities of motion. So I will stick to that for a while myself.

What do you think? Any comments or suggestions are highly welcome!