The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing being presented or bestowed. Both words were in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.
The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents: You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles: There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present to describe things like that. Presents are more concrete or a bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.
Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.
Gift appears to be used more frequently than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.
Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa Claus for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.
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A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.