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What's the difference between мир and свет to mean world? When would one use one over the other, and are there any set expressions where these are not interchangeable?

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When used to mean world, мир and свет are synonymous, though the latter can sound somewhat poetic and is more often used in literature and set expressions than in day-to-day life. For example:

Ничего на свете лучше нету

Чем бродить друзьям по белу свету

Or to quote the Russian national anthem:

Одна ты на свете

There are other situations where the two cannot be substituted for each other. For instance, one can't use свет when talking about the world of ______

«В мире животных»

В мире политики.

Of course, both words also have other meanings which are entirely unrelated (e.g., peace and light).

Also note that мир is used with the preposition в, whereas свет is used with на

Ни за что на свете!

Что в мире неизменно?

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    +1. Although you can say "во всём свете". Also an interesting tidbit is that you can only say "конец света" but not "конец мира", although if you say "мир закончится" it will mean the end of the world, while "свет закончится" just means you'll be out of electricity :). Or daylight. – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 19 '12 at 18:08
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    Actually, to be more exact, конец света is the end of the world, while конец мира is the proverbial end of the Earth - the physical one, where you fall off the edge. – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 19 '12 at 18:12
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    конец мира could also be read as the end of peace, with appropriate context, no? – Philip Seyfi Jun 19 '12 at 18:27
  • Sure, we're just focusing on the 'world' meaning. – Vitaly Mijiritsky Jun 19 '12 at 18:42
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    @PhilipSeyfi: currently, the word мира (in sg. gen.) could mean "of world", "of peace" or "of chrism". In the old orthography, the three meanings were written using the three separate vowels: миръ for "peace", мiръ for "world" and мѵро for "chrism". – Quassnoi Jun 19 '12 at 19:39
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Свет usually means not simply "world", but this world as we know it, as the world on Earth populated by people and animals, with all what is going on on it. For example, Asia, Europe, Africa and so on are "части света", or you can refer to the Northern America as "Новый свет".

It also has a somewhat mythological meaning, especially in usages as "произвести на свет" = "give birth", "сжить со свету" = "make someone disappear or even die by treating them badly", "тот свет" = "the other world, the world beyond the grave".

Also, свет has an older meaning "the society". Compare: "выйти в свет" = go out on a public event.

Мир is a more generic notion, it can be used in cases where world means "area" or "region" or "part". See the examples with "of"-preposition given in Philip Seyfi's answer.

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Мир in meaning world was closer to "social world":

На миру и смерть красна.

There was also a narrow meaning "peasant community":

Землю у них насильно и несправедливо отобрал мир. Куприн, "Поединок"

Свет is closer to "physical world" (enlightened surface).

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  • Totally opposite – Anixx Jan 17 '15 at 22:48

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