Diary vs. Journal: What's the difference?

Updated 13 February 2020

hugo huyer author of tracking happiness small
by Hugo: Founder of Tracking Happiness, marathon runner, data junkie and happiness tracker for almost 6 years.

Do you “keep a diary” or are you simply writing a journal? This question is pretty hard to answer since the two words have a definition that contains some serious overlapping. Then what exactly is the difference between diary vs. journal? Are they practically the same, or is there something we’re all missing here?

What's the difference between a diary and a journal? A diary and a journal are mostly the same, but a journal is, in fact, different from a diary. Depending on which context you use, the words can be seen as true synonyms. A diary has one definition: a book in which one keeps a daily record of events and experiences. In the meantime, a journal has two, of which one matches the exact definition of a diary.

This article is the most in-depth answer you'll find about the difference between a diary and a journal.

To give a quick answer: a diary and a journal are mostly the same, but a journal is, in fact, different from a diary. This answer might seem simple, but the actual explanation is a little trickier.

To fully understand this difference we must have a look at the definitions first.

Definitions of a diary vs. journal

Let’s take a look at what the dictionary says about these 2 words. These definitions are coming straight from Google, so let’s assume they know what they’re talking about and pretend there’s no dispute here.

On the one hand, you have the definition for "diary":

diary vs journal definition from google diary
Google is quite clear and gives a single definition for the word Diary

And on the other hand, there’s the definition for "journal":

diary vs journal definition from google journal
Here are the two definitions Google presents for the word Journal

Overlap between a diary and a journal

You can see how there’s a LOT of overlap here, right?

Depending on which context you use, the words can be seen as true synonyms actually. A journal can correctly be called a diary, and it goes both ways.

What’s clear here is that a diary has one definition: a book in which one keeps a daily record of events and experiences.

While a journal has two, of which one matches the exact definition of a diary.

So this is a big one. It means that a diary is always a synonym for a journal, but a journal does not necessarily share the same meaning with a diary. A journal can also be a newspaper or magazine that deals with a particular subject or professional activity.

Think about it. There’s a lot of other forms of journals. You have the Men’s journal, for example, something that does not resemble a diary in any way. And then you have nautical journals, where captains track positions, winds, wave heights and currents, which aren’t really events of a personal nature, I would say. I'm just coming up with examples here.

I bet you can think of a couple of "journals" which aren't necessarily "diaries" as well.

What's the difference between a journal and a diary?

So what about our answer? What’s the difference? Journal vs. diary? Which is which?

The answer is simple yet complicated.

In essence, the difference between a journal and a diary can be stated as follows.

  1. A diary can always correctly be called a journal
  2. A journal can’t always correctly be called a diary (but still often)
Diary vs. journal what's the difference picture
There's a lot of overlap with a diary and a journal, but a journal isn't necessarily a synonym for a diary

A diary is always a medium in which a person keeps a daily log of events and experiences.

A journal shares that same definition, but also includes another meaning: a magazine or newspaper that’s about some specific topic.

So these terms have an overlapping definition. It’s clear that there’s some ambiguity here.

Journal vs. diary: which is which?

Knowing this, let’s put these definitions to the test. I’ve selected a few examples, and according to their definitions, these examples are either a journal or a diary (or both!)

  • “Het Achterhuis”, which is arguably the most famous diary, by Anne Frank: A journal and/or a diary!

Even though this could also be called a journal according to the definition, most people will call this a diary. Why? Because this is a diary in it’s truest form: a daily clog of PERSONAL experiences. With the emphasis on personal.

That’s what a diary is for most people. A personal log of events, thoughts, experiences or emotions.

Fun fact:

When Googling for Anne Frank’s famous diary, 8,100 people search for the term “Anne Frank Diary” per month, as opposed to the mere 110 people that search for “Anne Frank Journal” on Google.

This data only focuses on people using Google within the USA and comes straight from Google's databases (via searchvolume.io)


keyword volume anne frank diary vs journal

Another fun fact:

Anne Frank is mentioned as a Diarist according to Wikipedia’s list of diarists. She could theoretically also be listed on the journalist’s page! (although she isn't, I checked 😉 )

  • Keeping a dream journal: A journal and/or a diary!

Some people like to log their dreams in what’s often called a dream journal. I’ve personally done this for a while as well, and I would always refer to it as my dream journal.

However, this is also a daily log of personal events or experiences, so could theoretically also be called a dream diary.

This was the first published diary I’ve ever read, and it’s inspired me to also start keeping a diary myself (it was what eventually became the idea of Tracking Happiness!)

The Heroin Diaries is a daily log of events and experiences, so could strictly be called both a diary and a journal. The events and experiences in this book are not your typical “dear diary... “ entries though.

In fact, they are mostly about drugs, and therefore (honestly) very interesting and fascinating to read.

  • Men’s Journal, you’ve probably heard of this one, a big magazine that covers anything that’s related to men.

You guessed it: This one’s a journal. You see, this is not a personal and daily log of experiences.

No, this is clearly a newspaper or magazine that deals with a particular subject or professional activity, a.k.a. a journal!

Diary vs. Journal: how much are the terms used?

When I started researching this topic of diary vs. journal, I noticed something interesting.

Google not only shows the definition of a word, but it also keeps track of how often those words are mentioned in books.

They’ve analyzed thousands of books, journals (!), transcripts and essays over the years in order to find out how often words are used relatively.

You can see for yourself here: https://books.google.com/ngrams/

Turns out that the word “journal” is currently used about 0.0021% of the times in this dataset of Google. In that same dataset, the word “diary” is used about 0.0010 % of the times.

Google ngrams for the word journal
Google sees an increase in usage of the word "Journal"
Google ngrams for the word journal
Diary is also increasingly used, but less than the word Journal

You can test this data for yourself here:

The data is based on just the English language and reaches as far as 2008!

What does this mean for my Happiness Tracking log?

I have tracked my happiness for 5 years now, and it's the main idea of this website: we measure our happiness so that we get to steer our lives in the right direction. You know, what gets measured gets managed and all that jazz.

Anyway, my method for tracking happiness is based on tracking happiness ratings on a scale from 1 to 10 and happiness factors.

But it also includes a journal section. Or is it a diary section?

I first start journaling and tracking happiness in an old leather journal, where I would talk about how my day went and how it affected my happiness. I later switched to a digital happiness tracking log.

My happiness tracking log includes a comment on how my day went, in which I write down everything that I'm feeling, thinking about or I've experienced. You can really call this a daily record of events and experiences. No arguing there, right?

So that makes it both a journal and a diary. I've recently called it my "personal happiness journal". But I might as well have called it a journal.

Come to think of it, I actually believe this fits the term diary a little better. Seeing how this daily log of events is so personal for me, I think a diary makes it easier for others to assume that it is, in fact, a personal log of events and experiences, and nothing else.


So we now know the answer to our question once and for all. A journal and diary often mean the exact same thing, but a journal can mean a little more. We also found that the word journal is used about 2x as often as the word diary, based on Google's database of literature.

However insignificant and biased all these observations might be, they do match our previous conclusion:

The word journal has a broader definition than the word diary. A diary can always be called a journal, while a journal cannot always be called a diary! The word journal covers other things that are not necessarily diaries.

And there you have it. The answer to this seemingly simple yet challenging question!

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