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Inactivate Vs Deactivate, Are These Similar In Meaning?

Inactivate Vs Deactivate, Are These Similar In Meaning?

The English language is extremely rich, full of peculiarities, and has an extremely broad vocabulary. Literally you can find a term to describe and differentiate every single thing you could possibly imagine. In this context, though, sometimes certain words that may appear to be defined similarly in terms of semantics actually mean very different things idiomatically within the context of pragmatics. That is the beauty of the English language, the value of linguistics as a field of study, and that is for sure the case of “inactivate” and “deactivate.”

Semantically, both inactivate and deactivate hold the same meaning: rendering something (or someone) inactive, inoperative, ineffective, or dysfunctional. The difference lies in how this inactivation takes place: whether by altering the environment in which the thing thrives or by taking it apart.

Identical Meanings

Both “inactivate” and “deactivate” are transitive verbs. Transitive verbs are defined as the ones that need to be accompanied by an object to be understandable and make sense when used. According to several dictionaries, both mean about the same: “to make inactive, inoperative or ineffective.”

That being said, we seem to be facing two identical words with identical meanings, right? Well, not exactly.

In terms of the words’ meanings, referred to as semantics, the branch of linguistics in charge of these matters, these words may indeed appear to be synonyms. Yet, in terms of the actual use of the words (the pragmatic sense), they’re applied to entirely different things in entirely different contexts.

deactivate word in the dictionary

Not So Obvious Differences

Oxford Languages sheds a little more light on the idiomatic differences between “inactivate” and “deactivate.” As seen before, both words mean to render inactive, inoperative, or ineffective. Both are also most commonly, yet not exclusively, used in the context of equipment, devices, explosives, or viruses, and in some circumstances, accounts or even people. Yet, in the specific case of “deactivate,” it makes the distinction that this inactivation, inoperativeness, or ineffectiveness is achieved by means of disconnection, dismantling or destruction.

The Origin Of It All

Both words work as antonyms of the word “activate,” which in turn derives from the term “active” meaning, in this particular sense that occupies us, to be working, or operative, or functional, or engaged. Active, in itself, derives from “activity” from the Latin term “activus” and “actus,” roughly meaning “doing” or “to drive, to move, to draw out or forth.”

So basically, we have two words that signify the cease of some sort of action or activity. But this cessation can come from different sources or be executed in different ways, which is what we really need to focus on to understand the differences.

It’s All About Context

As mentioned, both words represent on themselves the stop of an action or the functioning of a thing or being. In spite of this, they’re not exactly used in the same context in daily life.

The Science Of Inactivation

“To inactivate” works in a context as to alter the form of the environment of the thing (whether an object, a device, an intangible, etc.) we want to be inactivated is on, in order to render it non-operative, not functional, or not effective. In this sense, the term inactivate is applicable more to fields such as biology, medicine, chemistry, and the like, as the most frequent use of inactivation in this context is the inactivation of viruses or other biological forms or compounds (enzymes, for example). Merriam-Webster indicates that inactivation in this sense applies to destroying certain biological activities of a substance or causing an infectious agent the loss of its disease-causing effects.

We’ve heard a lot about inactivated viruses lately due to the different types of COVID-19 vaccines available right now. As explained by the World Health Organization (WHO), among the types of vaccine is the “inactivated vaccine,” defined as one made by taking the disease-carrier virus or one similar enough to it to render the same desired result, inactivating it by means of chemical compounds, elevated temperatures or radiation, so as to make the virus incapable of causing the actual disease, yet still recognizable to the body in order to start the process of producing the necessary antibodies. This is similar to the “live-attenuated” approach. Still, in this variant, although the effects on the body are comparable in terms of antibodies production, the original virus or bacterium isn’t fully inactivated before being introduced into the human body. Inactivated COVID-19 vaccines include (limiting only to those approved for human use): Shifa Pharmed (Iran), Sinopharm (Beijing, China), Sinopharm (Wuhan, China), Covaxin (India), Minhai Biotech Co (China), QazVac (Kazakhstan), Sinovac-Coronavac (China),

In a completely unrelated sense, inactivation also applies to discharging an official from the military or the act of breaking a specific military unit, either by transferring its members or by discharging them altogether.

The Mechanics Of Deactivation

On the other hand, deactivate is used more in the context of disconnecting, disassembling, or taking apart a device or a piece of equipment. Common uses range from radios or computers to bombs and explosive devices. Deactivation is also common in the digital environment as it applies to accounts, especially on social media.

To Inactivate Or To Deactivate, That Is The Question

Let’s explore some cases in which one or another are used in sentences:

  • Not only inactivated COVID-19 vaccines use the inactivation mechanism of creating immunity.
  • Some examples of inactivated viral vaccines throughout history are the Salk vaccine (polio), the Hep A vaccine, the rabies vaccine, the majority of influenza vaccines, and the vaccine against tick-borne encephalitis.
  • Other inactivated vaccines but focusing on bacterial infections include the typhoid vaccine, the cholera vaccine, the plague vaccine, and the pertussis vaccine.
  • Compound inactivation has other multiple health-related uses, like food quality and conservation during storage.
  • In this sense, we talk about enzyme inactivation; a necessary process that takes place in vegetables and fruits is enzyme inactivation.
  • Enzyme inactivation involves exposing these compounds to conditions utterly different from those you would commonly find within its environment (living cells).
  • Deactivation, on the contrary, focuses more on mechanical processes.
  • The most expert teams on deactivating devices are the anti-bomb squads, which act when called over for a bomb threat.
  • The anti-bomb units focus on evaluating the threat, locating the explosive device, determining the type of device involved, and thus, using the correct method to deactivate it.
  • Other things that can be deactivated are options, add-ons, extensions, and capabilities on operating systems, whether on computers or phones.
  • Deactivate is also the option provided by most social media services to render accounts inoperable by their owners.
  • The military also deactivates officials to be placed on discharge (whether honorable or dishonorable).

inactivated covid 19 vial

Bottom Line

Both words, “inactivate” and “deactivate” are excellent examples of how it is not only important to understand the meaning of words before making a comparison between them, but also it is necessary to learn the context in which each one is used, as to not make mistakes. This is called comparing the semantic aspect with the pragmatics, both elements of linguistics.

The term inactivate is by far the most common and mentioned during these pandemic days, as some of the inactivated vaccines are either the only main ones applied in certain countries or regions (like Sinovac throughout Latin America and several regions of China, Shifa Pharmed in Iran, and QazVac in Kazahstan, among others).

Yet we’ve grown up surrounded by action movies showing us how the special anti-bomb unit disarms explosive devices in order to defuse and deactivate them. So we can really consider both applicable in day-to-day life, functional in modern English language, and each well understood in their own field of application.