The English language distinguishes the terms "poison" and "venom", with "toxin" sometimes used as a general classifier for both:

Venomous organisms deliver or inject venom into other organisms

Poisonous organisms, on the other hand, do not deliver their toxins directly. The entire body, or large parts of it, may contain the poisonous substance.

Are there any other languages in which this is also the case? The ones I know enough of to comment on (Chinese, German) do not appear to make this distinction.

  • 1
    In the jargon of toxicology in Chinese, bloodstream-specific 毒液 is actually distinguished from 毒物.
    – Michaelyus
    Feb 9, 2015 at 9:15

2 Answers 2


As far as I know, this is a scientific distinction not generally recognized by the average person in the street. "Poison" is a most general term, "toxin" is a subcase of that (poison produced by biological function) and "venom" is the injected subset of that. French also has "poison, venin, toxine", and I assume those terms exist in quite a number of languages. If a Norwegian-speaking toxicologist would weigh on we could get a definite answer, but I think there is no general term for venom which is the same as "poison" = "gift", though toxin is "toksin". You can say "slangegift" = "snake poison", but nothing that covers the whole class of vena. One could check a journal of toxicology that publishes in Norwegian, but I don't think there are any.

  • I wouldn't have thought that 'toxin' is a subset of 'poison'... 'toxic waste' is a very ordinary phrase with no biological implications.
    – curiousdannii
    Feb 9, 2015 at 7:19
  • So essentially, this means that there is usually a distinction, but unless one works in the field involving such distinctions, one would not be aware of the difference?
    – March Ho
    Feb 9, 2015 at 9:26
  • @curiousdannii But toxic is not a derivative of toxin - it is a general term meaning, broadly, poisonous, noxious, and has been around in English since the 17th century, while toxin is a late-19th-century coinage from the same stem. Feb 9, 2015 at 13:08
  • There are millions of versions of English. In some, "poisonous" includes "disease-carrying" (a bat can be poisonous). Komodo dragons may or may not be venomous, depending on your theory of "venom". Most people don't talk about toxins or venom; so it depends on what version of English you're talking about. In science-speak, "toxicant" is a broader category.
    – user6726
    Feb 9, 2015 at 16:27

"Toxin" is a latin word used as the special term in different languages.

Considering the difference between "poison" and "venom", in Russian there are words "яд" and "отрава". Although nowadays they are used interchangeably, they have different roots. "Яд" is derived from "еда" - "food", which is analogue to "poison" - "potio" - "drink". "Отрава" is derived from "трава" - "herb". So technically we have different words for "poison" and "vegetal poison", while english-speaking persons differ "poison" and "animal poison".

Sample transcription (the real pronunciation may differ): Яд - jˈat, Еда - jɪdˈa, Трава - travˈa, Отрава - atrˈava.

P.S. Well, I haven't looked in a book and made a foolish mistake. Both 'трава' and 'отрава' originated from ancient verbs 'травити' (travi'ti) and 'трути' (tru'ti) (consider also Ukrainian 'отрута' (atru'ta) - 'poison'). The latter means 'spend' (also 'consume', 'digest') (also compare to Russian 'тратить' (tratit') - 'spend'; Polish 'trawienie' - 'digestion').

So, 'отрава' is about bad food and/or digestion, not about 'vegetal poison'.


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