Improper nouns
September 2, 2022 2:42 AM   Subscribe

An improper noun is a phrase that has been recruited – or perhaps appropriated – from colloquial language by some technical people to designate a concept or thing important to them, but which is not only inscrutable to outsiders, it's nigh-invisible, in that it's easily mistaken for an ordinary descriptive phrase.
posted by automatronic (112 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's a good thing we don't have anything like that, hamburger.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:18 AM on September 2 [10 favorites]


Otherwise this thread could attract a lot of negative energy.
posted by flabdablet at 3:43 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


Let me tell you about control testing vs. testing of controls vs. Control Testing in a job I once had...
posted by whitewall at 4:21 AM on September 2 [9 favorites]


That's just a theory.
posted by TedW at 4:23 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


TheophileEscargot: "It's a good thing we don't have anything like that, hamburger."

That one's clearly not an improper noun, though, because the minute you see that you know it's not an ordinary descriptive phrase.

As a translator, the one that jumps out to me immediately is: "translator." In the translation industry, a translator is someone who translates written text from one language into another. On the face of it, it would seem that a translator should be someone who translates from one language to another period, but it isn't. If they're translating something that's written down, they're a translator, but if they're translating something audible, they're an interpreter.

For people outside the industry, though, an interpreter is a translator. They're not wrong -- outside the industry, "translator" includes "interpreter" -- but within the industry if someone says they're a translator you know that they're not interpreting at conferences.
posted by Bugbread at 4:24 AM on September 2 [24 favorites]


Metafilter: and I want to let you know, whomever you are, that for once in your miserable excuse for an existence you have finally used the word "semantics" correctly.
posted by lalochezia at 4:34 AM on September 2 [26 favorites]


I found TFA to be very arch, although, I hasten to add, there were no literal arches involved.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:41 AM on September 2 [14 favorites]


As I mentioned in a comment in the linked thread:

I get the "this is a term of art" vibe when I read/hear a phrase and think, "Wait, isn't that, like, everything?" as in "functional programming" or "product management". In each of these examples we see an adjective that, literally, applies to the whole field. All programming has to do with functionality/making things work, and, in technology, all management of developers and similar specialists has to do with the product. But FP is a particular approach and PM is a specific set of responsibilities.

So, some other examples in this vein might be: qualified lead, office hours, real name, floor staff, entitlement benefits/payments, whole word (re: learning to read)...
posted by brainwane at 4:43 AM on September 2 [5 favorites]


Depression is one. Everyone gets depressed at times, in the colloquial sense, but that's qualitatively different to clinical depression in length of time, effects and life impact, and there's various subtypes. But there remains a persistent public belief (that people will happily talk about) that clinical depression is no different than feeling a bit sad and sufferers should just 'buck themselves up a bit', and I'm sure it's the same for clinical anxiety.

IT is pretty rife with these too, e.g. don't get me started on the misconception of what 'bandwidth' actually means.
posted by Absolutely No You-Know-What at 4:50 AM on September 2 [10 favorites]


I have neither the bandwidth nor the spoons for that discussion.
posted by box at 5:01 AM on September 2 [31 favorites]


A great concept terribly explained. Took way too long to get to the point and then the examples weren't great either.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:13 AM on September 2 [49 favorites]


Interesting.

I've run into this reading and listening to discussions about American climate change policy. I'm familiar with the scientific and engineering vocabulary and with the UK and European Improper Nouns but came across quite a few phrases and verbal habits that surprised me in the US version, despite being a native speaker of English who attended an American school in the US for a few years.

For example: everyone is always talking about "communities" and nobody ever talks about "people" and rarely "households".

There are a lot special modifiers for "communities". "Fenceline Communities", "Frontline Communities" and one I discovered last week, "Climate Justice Communities". I mean, I can usually get roughly where they're going with this based on context but it was jarring to find so many things that were clearly semi-terms-of-art in an area that notionally speaking I know very well, in a country and language I know well.
posted by atrazine at 5:20 AM on September 2


On a multidisciplinary team of both scientists and engineers, I would estimate that about 10-20% of all work related arguments we have start from misunderstandings where someone accidentally uses someone else's improper noun when casually describing an unrelated thing. This kind of reminds me of the way businesses defend their trademarks. You can't use that simple phrase to describe something in your field because we're already using it and it has meaning to us! Sometimes I have a hard time discerning whether someone is genuinely confused or feigning ignorance just to make a point.

There just isn't enough vocabulary to go around so that everyone can have their own special way of referring to something specific to their work.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:24 AM on September 2 [8 favorites]


Math seems to me to be the worst for claiming inconspicuous frequently used common nouns as technical terms. “Group”? “Field”?
posted by LizardBreath at 5:28 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


Money shot
posted by chavenet at 5:32 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


Math is so bad at this, it's even eating itself.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:35 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I'm a little confused at why they would spend seemingly a third of the essay on a concept they describe as slightly incorrect but is significantly more incorrect than that.

English absolutely has a way of distinguishing between "the green building" and "the Green building" aurally - if the building is green, the cadence of the phrase emphasizes "building" - it's the green BUILDING. Whereas if you grab 100 people randomly at MIT and point at the tall tower, they will say, oh yeah, that's the GREEN building. The capital G is absolutely encoded in the sentence cadence. Pretending that spoken English doesn't contain this kind of information all the time doesn't do their argument any favors. They start a conversation about confusion and mixups by being almost intentionally obtuse.
posted by range at 5:37 AM on September 2 [46 favorites]


In case you're wondering, Burger King's website has two hamburger menus.
posted by secretrobot at 5:48 AM on September 2 [18 favorites]


The capital G is absolutely encoded in the sentence cadence.

For fluent (probably native-level) English speakers without auditory processing issues who’ve already been advised that there’s a difference between the Green building and the green building, sure.
posted by Etrigan at 5:58 AM on September 2 [15 favorites]


I think, if anything, this person does not go far enough. A concept or thing which is inscrutable to outsiders is pretty much the definition of a unique culture. You have these sorts of misunderstandings not only when speaking to others in a specialized field but also moving across geographical or or other cultural boundaries.

You could argue that rival cultures have different nuanced interpretations of the same noun or phrase. In some cases, it refers to one specific thing. Here in Amsterdam you might attend a discussion where people talk about bike streets and bike paths. The former are very specific types of streets, where cars are allowed but bikes take priority, with a specific set of rules and designations. You can't derive that technical meaning from the words "bike" and "street" alone.

On a larger cultural level, I was speaking in English to a Dutch person here who speaks English fluently. But at one point I referred to a man she had been talking to as her "friend" and to my surprise she blushed and started talking about being married and her husband etc.. which struck me as a non-sequitur. In Dutch though "vriend" means "friend" but it also means boyfriend or girlfriend and you have to carefully distinguish the two.

I'd argue that these jarring moments when you realize the person across from you is using the same words as you but has a different conception in their head about what is meant by those words is just a part of life and learning to navigate the complexity of other cultures, from small ones to large ones.

The linked essay never quite makes it to this point. Instead it is easy to come away from that believing that the only ambiguous noun phrases are ones that contain adjectives such as "Blue Book" or "Glass Ceiling" or "Depressed Person" or "Grand Theft"
posted by vacapinta at 6:01 AM on September 2 [9 favorites]


oh, I was disappointed to find out it didn't mean those terms co-opted by tech to mean some futile fleeting technology: docker, angular, chef, asterix, agile, node, ...
posted by scruss at 6:02 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


English absolutely has a way of distinguishing between "the green building" and "the Green building" aurally - if the building is green, the cadence of the phrase emphasizes "building" - it's the green BUILDING.

I...completely disagree? If someone told me "the event will be at the green building", that would be weird, and I would second-guess what they were getting at.

Emphasizing the word "building" implies that you're making a distinction with some other green object.

On the other hand, if you say "the event will be at the green building": that implies that you're making a distinction with other buildings. But it doesn't serve to clarify the meaning of the word "green" – it could be a proper name, or a color. They could be distinguishing it from the blue building, or from the Thompson building.

Unless they were specifically trying to clarify some confusion – e.g., if I had suggested that I was about to go to the wrong building – I would expect neither word to be particularly emphasized. It would just be "the green building", or "the Green building".
posted by escape from the potato planet at 6:04 AM on September 2 [16 favorites]


Jargon serves as a linguistic shortcut but also to include the in-crowd and exclude the out-crowd; in as much as this is subconsciously what humans tend to do, jargon is likely ineradicatable. It's not just jargon that suffers from this, it's also idioms and vernaculars. And sometimes it's good to exclude people, who may wish you harm, from understanding what you're saying.

But if you don't want to exclude people who are not in your clique, you have to speak plainly. And if you don't speak plainly, it's safe to assume you have an agenda for not doing so, whether you're conscious of it or not.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:21 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


What color is the Green building painted?
posted by AlSweigart at 6:23 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, if you say "the event will be at the green building": that implies that you're making a distinction with other buildings.

If they wanted to disambiguate, which they don't appear to, it would be as simple as saying "The event will be in Green," which I think most people vaguely familiar with college campuses would understand as a building named Green. Or make it clearer by saying "The event will be in Green 106" or whatever the room is.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 6:26 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I don't understand this at all and TFA is unnecessarily dense. Is the point that context matters? Of course references in statutes have to be defined within the context of that statute so that the scope of the statute is understood. For example, it should be obvious that a "certified community behavioral health clinic" means certified within the specific Medicaid program that is being referenced. Maybe I'm just missing the point.

In any event, there is a shopping center outside Baltimore that will always and forever be "the pink shopping center" because back in the 90s it was painted an absolutely atrocious shade of pink. It hasn't been pink for at least 20 years (it may not even be there anymore), but it will never be anything other than "the pink shopping center."
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 6:27 AM on September 2 [6 favorites]


This is not a solvable problem at the level of nouns. As Vacapinta said, this is a cultural issue, and different professional cultures use words differently.

The solution is what we call in technical writing, “English to English translation.” Recognize you just dropped some jargon, then explain the term. Get in the habit of doing this, even with colleagues.

Too often I hear the question, “everyone knows what I mean by X, right?” inviting the ignorant to identify themselves not only as ignorant but as the person slowing things down, which is embarrassing. Don’t let this question pass unanswered. Demand an answer and ask the speaker to explain themselves more regularly. In the time it takes to ask this stupid question and receive a response, an explanation could have been provided.
posted by Headfullofair at 6:31 AM on September 2 [14 favorites]


When I was in my twenties, I figured out that a lot of cool-sounding names of novels were "just" place names and to me back then it seemed like a WHOA GALAXY BRAIN moment.

Mystic River
Revolutionary Road
Empire Falls

I had heard of these novels and I had assumed these titles were using common nouns. Like I thought Empire Falls was about the demise of an empire. And then I read the book and it was a bit of a let-down, because it was just about a town called Empire Falls, named after a waterfall. What? That is NOT as exciting as empires falling. *shakes fist* Richard Russo cheated me. By the time I read Cold Mountain I was wise to the sneaky games novelists play and I did not expect to read about alpinists freezing. To this day I remain cynical about book titles.
posted by MiraK at 6:39 AM on September 2 [19 favorites]


I think there are (at least) four options depending on cadence and very small differences in pronunciation.

"Hey, look at that green BUILDING" (with barely any stress on "building")
"MIT hosts a structure called the GREEN building"
"Not the red one, the GREEEEN building"
"Not the green tree, the green BUILLLLDING"

Obviously exaggerated for effect but I think in spoken English the distinctions are there; there are a million micro-inflections folks use all the time to distinguish between homophones and other ambiguities.
posted by range at 6:44 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


>> if you say "the event will be at the green building": that implies that you're making a distinction with other buildings.<<

I agree with that. But after saying both "the green building" and "the Green building" to myself a few times. I notice a slight difference. Both do indeed put the emphasis on the adjective. But I say"Green" a bit more slowly, at a slightly higher pitch, and with the "ee" sound stretched out a tad more, than when saying "green". All that serves to, in effect, capitalize it. The effect is subtle but I think a native speaker would catch it.
posted by mono blanco at 6:44 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


To me, this article feels not wrong, but also not right?

I mean, yes, sometimes descriptive noun phrases are used as proper nouns and have technical or legal definitions that are somewhat different from what you might assume based on the common meaning of the descriptive noun phrase. But only somewhat, and giving things descriptive names, in most cases, will increase understanding of what the name means even if it occasionally causes some confusion.

They used Highly Sensitive Person as an example. Calling them Highly Sensitive Persons is being interpreted more broadly than it should be, given that the technical term has a narrow definition, but people do have at least some idea what is being talked about. If you called them, say 'Aron Type 1 People' to pull something out of my ass, it would certainly be clear to everyone who isn't in the field that they had no idea what that meant, but also, they wouldn't have any idea what it meant.

Less chance for misunderstanding, yes, but also less chance for any understanding at all.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:49 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


English absolutely has a way of distinguishing between "the green building" and "the Green building" aurally - if the building is green, the cadence of the phrase emphasizes "building" - it's the green BUILDING. Whereas if you grab 100 people randomly at MIT and point at the tall tower, they will say, oh yeah, that's the GREEN building. The capital G is absolutely encoded in the sentence cadence. Pretending that spoken English doesn't contain this kind of information all the time doesn't do their argument any favors. They start a conversation about confusion and mixups by being almost intentionally obtuse.

(Hi, I am a linguist who specializes in prosody.)

The capital G is not encoded in the sentence cadence. What you're describing is the difference in stress between a compound noun and a noun phrase containing an adjective, e.g. black bird vs. blackbird.

This difference in stress exists, but is ambiguous. The first element can be stressed because it is the first element in a compound noun, OR it can be stressed because it is emphasized or focused:

A: Meet me at the Green Building.

B: Meet me at the green building, not the red one.

That "not the red one" doesn't have to be there to induce stress on the word "green," it just has to be there in the context of the conversation. In a situation where you're giving directions and trying to distinguish a building from other buildings, that stress will naturally occur quite frequently. In other words, the confusion that she's describing can in fact occur, and the example is not 'being almost intentionally obtuse.'

The blog post isn't perfect*, but I'm surprised at the hostility. It's possible to make a small mistake in an example without "being almost intentionally obtuse." Even if you were correct, is this mistake the only thing worth engaging with?

* in particular, one of the commenters on the post brings up a concept that she misses - that of lexicalization. I think being familiar with this concept would have changed the shape of the post somewhat. It's a natural part of language change and largely unpreventable, so I think there might be less scolding about rhetorical irresponsibility. That said, when intentionally creating a term of art, it's something that people can think about and perhaps mitigate for that particular term.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:49 AM on September 2 [35 favorites]


When delivering pizza here in Fargo many years ago, I was able to help a coworker because I had lived in the neighborhood and knew about the weird naming. All street addresses in Fargo are essentially "North" or "South" -- 123 1st Street N, 2031 17th Avenue S, the dividing line is Main Avenue downtown.

However, "South Terrace" is in North Fargo, where Terrace Avenue splits into North Terrace and South Terrace, although Terrace Avenue doesn't exist anymore, it became 6th Avenue North. It is, in fact, a legacy named street from when the town was actually divided into East and West streets, a change was made in the 1880s to north vs south when a lot of streets got renamed to the orderly numbered-grid, versus random president names. Modern postal rules means you now have to add the north or south, so the addresses are actually South Terrace North and North Terrace North, which maybe makes things clearer, I don't know. I just appreciate that North Terrace and South Terrace are connected by Short Street, a street that's only about 100 feet long.

Speaking of east vs west, West Fargo is not part of Fargo, it is its own town that used to be two or three miles west of Fargo proper, but city growth means now the two touch.

West Fargo's streets are divided "East" vs "West", so if you see an address of 6th Avenue East, you know that's in West Fargo.

My wife, who is from the Milwaukee suburbs, would prefer a no-organization-at-all system ("their address has a tree name in it so it must be over there somewhere") than the numbered-grid style which isn't followed consistently ("what does 8-1/2 street mean?").

...about a town called Empire Falls, named after a waterfall.

Fergus Falls, Minnesota, does not in fact have any Falls to view. There is no explanation for this that I can find; the closest I can get is that they built a dam and raised the river level to make a small lake so that must have covered the falls.
posted by AzraelBrown at 6:50 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


Here's my question after reading TFA: what do you call it when jargon gets appropriated into common parlance to mean something substantially different, even possibly the literal opposite, of the original term of art?
posted by MiraK at 6:53 AM on September 2 [8 favorites]


Like I thought Empire Falls was about the demise of an empire. And then I read the book and it was a bit of a let-down, because it was just about a town called Empire Falls, named after a waterfall. What? That is NOT as exciting as empires falling. *shakes fist* Richard Russo cheated me.

MiraK, this EXACT same thing happened to me with Revolutionary Road. I was assigned to read it for a class when I was 19 and from blurb and context clues went in 100% expecting something about radicalized young suburbanites increasingly escalating their attempts to take down the system.

Which turns out not to be what Revolutionary Road is about .
posted by thivaia at 6:53 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


Never trust place names; 99% of the time they are not what you think. e.g. my latest example is Coffin Point in SC. My mind wants it to be about a ship carrying coffins that wrecked on the shoals resulting in a beach full of coffins, but no it was the landowner's last name.

Going into the article I was thinking of an example from where I worked last. In a manufacturing environment people would ask about the the status of a production run and the response would be "I don't have visibility to that" meaning specifically that when they looked in the MRP system they didn't have access to that particular report or function, so they couldn't "see" how it was going.
posted by achrise at 6:57 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


"Well that's just great Seymour! We've been out here six seconds and you've already managed to blow the routine!"

Let's not get too caught up in the building's name. It's a terrible example that is more illustrative of the of the intersection between people's surnames and common words and we're pretty self-aware of that particular pitfall of language.

I think the more pertinent problem is that there are words and phrases which--literally--for lack of a better term, get imbued with special meanings in some contexts but can still be deceptively taken at face value in other contexts. The legal world is full of this kind of thing because they have a strict, unchanging definition of what words and phrases mean in their context and that may at times be vastly different than what the rest of us think on a colloquial sense.

Just look at how Trump is abusing this ambiguity when he throws around words like "executive privilege". There's a pretty strict legal definition for what can and can't be considered executive privilege, but most people who aren't lawyers don't know what that definition is or how it's applied. Ditto whenever someone complains that their "due process" has been violated when they've been banned from a social media platform for violating terms and conditions.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 7:02 AM on September 2 [9 favorites]


thivaia, MiraK, I picked up Alan Furst's Dark Star assuming that it would have some fantastical element, because of the title, and did eventually figure out it had none. (Idea for a future MetaTalk chat thread: what is the artwork that gave you the most dissonance between what you expected based on the title and what you actually got?)
posted by brainwane at 7:06 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


In French Algeria, the colonial administration had a neat way to differentiate the natives from the colonists so that they could apply different laws to each category: the former were the "Muslims" and the latter the "Europeans". But what happened when a "Muslim" converted to Christianism? Grumble, grumble. So a tribunal in Algiers came up in 1903 with a new concept that allowed to keep the converts in the native category: the "Christian Muslim"!
posted by elgilito at 7:08 AM on September 2 [6 favorites]


> Let's not get too caught up in the building's name. ... I think the more pertinent problem is that there are words and phrases which--literally--for lack of a better term, get imbued with special meanings in some contexts but can still be deceptively taken at face value in other contexts. ... Just look at how Trump is abusing this ambiguity when he throws around words like "executive privilege".

Yes, this is it exactly, this is the real problem. (It's also what I thought the article would be about, but that's not the article's fault!) I think we need a term for this phenomenon so we can talk about it properly.
posted by MiraK at 7:15 AM on September 2


MIT solves the "Green Building" problem by referring to buildings by number, but I realize that solution doesn't work for normal people.
posted by madcaptenor at 7:18 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I get the "this is a term of art" vibe when I read/hear a phrase and think, "Wait, isn't that, like, everything?" as in "functional programming" or "product management".

"Data science". Is there science that's not based on data?
posted by madcaptenor at 7:21 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


The "Literally Decimated Effect"?
The probability that a usage of the phrase 'executive privilege' conforms to topics in Article II, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution has been literally decimated.
posted by achrise at 7:33 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


"Data science". Is there science that's not based on data?

Sure, there are branches of theoretical and mathematical physics that aren’t based on experimental data. The funny thing here is that “data science” is not actually science.
posted by mubba at 7:35 AM on September 2 [10 favorites]


"African American" is also in this category; it has a specific meaning in ethnography, but there'll always be someone taking it literally and saying it should apply to Elon Musk. And you get things like the white US presenter who couldn't stop using it to refer to Nelson Mandela, because to her it was just the polite way to say "black".
posted by automatronic at 7:36 AM on September 2 [13 favorites]


Here's my question after reading TFA: what do you call it when jargon gets appropriated into common parlance to mean something substantially different, even possibly the literal opposite, of the original term of art?


Oh yeah, like “performativity” — which I think was originally jargon meaning “something you can actually enact just by saying it,” like thanking someone. By saying “thank you,” you’ve thanked them. Now in common parlance it means “something you can’t enact just by saying it,” like “performative allyship.”
posted by en forme de poire at 7:36 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


So if I grok the post correctly, it covers one of my bigger pet peeves in tech - namely, appropriating a word or string of words and then applying your own definition to them. (And then being baffled by the confusion generated when people apply the original meanings to the words or disagree with the phrase...)

As an example, a group I worked with wanted very badly to be able to describe what the company did as "innovation" and essentially redefined it to mean what they wanted it to mean and then got upset when would challenge the concept. Is that what we're defining as an "improper noun" here?

(At first glance I thought the author was going to talk another of my bigger pet peeves - which is when folks capitalize a word or phrase because it's Very Important even though it's not a proper noun.. but get Very Pissy when you remove the caps.)
posted by jzb at 7:43 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


I feel like the tendency towards appropriating everyday words as field-specific jargon is so strong in math that it even influences the style of other people who want to be thought of as rigorous in a math-y way. I vaguely remember trying to read some internet post that I think was from some LessWrong-adjacent rationalist, which was earnestly posing a question like “can events have elemental hair” (ok it wasn’t that, because I can’t remember any of the actual words, but it was a short sentence where none of the nouns or adjectives meant what they usually do).
posted by en forme de poire at 7:47 AM on September 2


I think the more pertinent problem is that there are words and phrases which--literally--for lack of a better term, get imbued with special meanings in some contexts but can still be deceptively taken at face value in other contexts.

One of the first comments to the article:
This reminds me of the way terms of dog-whistle racism function, as strings of words recognisable by an in-group to mean something other than what the plain reading says, while maintaining plausible deniability about the racism. Is, for example, "liberal metropolitan elite" an improper noun? How about "welfare queens" or "benefits cheats"?
See also big igloo / big luau / boogaloo
posted by rochrobbb at 7:47 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


To triple post: part of the issue is also that if you give something a dry, non-descriptive name in science, it is hard to remember. This is bad because it impedes communication — I’ve read a ton of papers that were just acronym soup and they’re very hard to get anything out of. By the same token, it’s also bad for the careers of scientists, because dry names lead people to use (and cite) your concept less than catchy, memorable names. The problem is that then if those concepts leak into the popular imagination you get this type of misunderstanding.
posted by en forme de poire at 7:55 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


Speaking of buildings that defied their description, my favourite is the University of Sydney's Transient Building. Erected as a temporary structure shortly after WW II, it stood for nearly 70 years. Despite rumors it was heritage listed as an example of postwar architecture, it was finally demolished in 2015. I guess we're all transient in the end.

Honi Soit (the student newspaper):
Transient was many things, but it was mostly asbestos. It never pretended to be what it wasn’t, i.e. in range of USyd Wi-Fi. It remained the home of those with expendable majors, for whom the challenge of complex room numbers, chair shortages and jamming bathroom doors served as a dry run for the perils of job-hunting with a degree in linguistics.

The people who knew Transient variously described it as “[seeming] structurally stable” (Lost on Campus), “the ugliest building on campus” (everyone), and, bizarrely, deserving of heritage listing (sydneyarchitecture.com). Yet in the end, the building lived up to its name. Vale, Transient. You will not linger in our hearts, but (given the fibrous asbestos), you may yet remain in our lungs.
sic transient gloria mundi
posted by zamboni at 7:57 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


I once gave a talk at Brown University. It was held in the donor-funded Platte-Bains Building. I was in good form and the student body became very aroused. My honorarium was twenty dollars, same as in town.
posted by Rumple at 8:02 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


A great concept terribly explained.

for the record, it's 512 words (3011 characters) before it gets to an example, and even the bloody example takes almost 60 words to get to the basic point:

It is not green.

It's beige.


Building 54, that is. At MIT.

On one level, I'm impressed. In this age of information overload (everybody and their neighbour and, of course, the entirety of the marketing dept, resorting to extreme ends just to somehow maybe possibly catch my attention for half a second) here's a line of thinking that just doesn't care. It's got a point, eventually. Maybe we need a word for it. Something like ... eventualism.

But that feels a little on the nose. How about Properism? For confusion's sake. Because if you're not confusing most of the people most of the time these days, you're trying too hard.
posted by philip-random at 8:03 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


I think growing up in a town with a not-green "Green Bridge" prepared me for this.

But I've always been amused at "The Little, Brown Handbook," named after its authors rather than its physical appearance. Sometimes the publisher obliges by putting a brown cover on it, usually not though.
posted by Foosnark at 8:14 AM on September 2 [6 favorites]


MartinWisse: "A great concept terribly explained. Took way too long to get to the point and then the examples weren't great either."

This. At first I thought it was some MIT-insider gripe about their building naming conventions. Then they started talking about some sub on reddit and I just noted out.

The term is useful, somebody should write a better article about it.
posted by signal at 8:21 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


what do you call it when jargon gets appropriated into common parlance to mean something substantially different, even possibly the literal opposite, of the original term of art?
posted by MiraK at 6:53 AM


That's called an Architecture conference
posted by eustatic at 8:23 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


The funny thing here is that “data science” is not actually science.

I know. (I'm a data scientist.)
posted by madcaptenor at 8:24 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


Oh yeah, like “performativity” — which I think was originally jargon meaning “something you can actually enact just by saying it,” like thanking someone. By saying “thank you,” you’ve thanked them. Now in common parlance it means “something you can’t enact just by saying it,” like “performative allyship.”

(This actually came up at my workplace, where we needed to distinguish between documents that have legal effect and documents that merely describe/summarize existing legal realities. I tried to describe the former as "performative, like in the old school sense" and people mostly looked at me like I was an alien.)
posted by Jpfed at 8:33 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


Is Critical Race Theory an interesting example? It feels like it was appropriated because those three words resonated individually, and in proximity to each other, in the most alarming way with the target audience, even if that audience has no grasp whatsoever what that phrase means in its proper context.
posted by BrashTech at 8:35 AM on September 2 [8 favorites]


On the topic of math and the opposite direction of technical terminology getting appropriated for non-technical uses, ”growing exponentially” is my particular pet peeve.

To further complicate things, I’m not thinking of a specific example off the top of my mind, but it seems to me that there are a couple words or phrases that started out as technical terminology, then got co-opted in this way to an unrelated or only partially related general use, and that became common enough that a majority of people have forgotten about or never heard of the technical use, and now think that people using the word or phrase in its original technical sense are the ones doing the co-opting in a manner as described in the post?
posted by eviemath at 8:46 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]




My favorite was always "quality". When spoken in life, it can mean easy to use, long lasting, reliable. When spoken in manufacturing and advertising, it means "We can deliver the same piece of crap product every. single. time."
posted by SunSnork at 8:52 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


Yeah, that one's a corker. I still remember listening in disbelief as the Very Expensive Consultant that the bosses had hired to help our software shop work toward ISO 9001 quality certification yammered on and on and on about six sigma lack of variation in stainless steel bolt manufacture.
posted by flabdablet at 9:07 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


I figured out that a lot of cool-sounding names of novels were "just" place names and to me back then it seemed like a WHOA GALAXY BRAIN moment.

I was once a passenger in a car to a destination I knew and the driver didn’t, and gave him directions including “Turn right at the Magic Fountain.”

It wasn’t until we got there that I found out he was expecting a fountain with elves and unicorns gamboling around it, or at least something that looked like one, rather than an ice cream place with a big sign.
posted by LizardBreath at 9:11 AM on September 2 [8 favorites]


I visited a Quaker college that held classes in the Hall Building. I figured they were just trying to be plain and unostentatious with the naming, but it turned out the donor was someone with the surname Hall.
posted by Morpeth at 9:23 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


I'm so delighted that this kind of long-form conceptual blogging on Dreamwidth still exists!

One example I thought of: the concepts of "positive reinforcement" and "negative reinforcement" in behavioral science, which are typically thought of as meaning 'reward' and 'punishment' respectively. Positive reinforcement actually means "reinforce the behavior by adding something desirable" (eat your vegetables every weeknight and I'll give you a sticker) and negative reinforcement means "reinforce the behavior by taking something undesirable away" (eat your vegetables every weeknight and I won't make you eat them on the weekend). The opposite is positive punishment (if you don't eat your vegetables tonight, it's extra helpings tomorrow) and negative punishment (if you don't eat your vegetables, no dessert for you).
posted by capricorn at 9:30 AM on September 2 [11 favorites]


And then there are positive and negative feedbacks, which often get misapplied to be synonymous with virtuous and vicious circles respectively even though both of those are examples of positive feedback.

Negative feedback, likewise, is often misapplied to mean that the boss has been mean in a performance review rather than referring to the kind of feedback that needs to be designed into systems that need to maintain stability despite external perturbations.
posted by flabdablet at 9:39 AM on September 2 [5 favorites]




METAFILTER: growing up in a town with a not-green "Green Bridge" prepared me for this.
posted by philip-random at 9:53 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


"Person of color" versus "colorful person"

Is this whole thing just another name for an idiom?
posted by echo target at 9:55 AM on September 2


In Chile, we have large urban highways named after cardinal directions. So you can tell someone to take the "Costanera Norte al Oriente" or "Vespucio Sur al Norte", and in some cases the signs just skip the part of the name relating to the (wrong) direction (so they say "Costanera al Sur") but this adds a new level of confusion because there are other nearby streets named "Costanera" and "Vespucio".
posted by signal at 9:58 AM on September 2


And then there are positive and negative feedbacks

Nice example, flabdablet. I always have to think when I hear a new phrase involving "positive" or "negative". Is the word "positive" or "negative" lending some kind of affective aura to the phrase (e.g. positive psychology, at least in popular usage)? Is it more narrowly related to whether something operates by presence/affirmation or absence/removal (e.g. negative reinforcement or positivism)? Is it just indicating the direction of an effect (e.g. negative correlation)? Often more than one of these possibilities is plausible, and connotations can seep across. Positive discrimination -- another term for what Americans call affirmative action -- is an inherently confusing phrase. Hell, so is negative test result. It's usually what we want to hear, but it doesn't sound like a good thing, does it?
posted by aws17576 at 10:11 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


It's almost like science should start using a dead language to avoid such confusion
posted by polymodus at 10:19 AM on September 2 [6 favorites]


If anyone uses 'anti-pattern' to describe this thing, I will show up and deliver some learnings for you to reason about. Just try me.
posted by drowsy at 10:21 AM on September 2 [9 favorites]


BTW, 'performant' will be the improper adjective used to describe the effectiveness of said learnings transmission.
posted by drowsy at 10:26 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


So, inadvertent confusion vs deliberate obfuscation..
posted by BlueHorse at 10:42 AM on September 2


Metafilter: The blog post isn't perfect, but I'm surprised at the hostility.
posted by biogeo at 10:59 AM on September 2 [5 favorites]


There is also the opposite phenomenon, where people self-assuredly declare that an ordinary, everyday expression with a settled common meaning is in fact a term of art being misused. Case in point: those who complain about "begging the question".
posted by Pyrogenesis at 11:06 AM on September 2 [1 favorite]


it seems to me that there are a couple words or phrases that started out as technical terminology, then got co-opted in this way to an unrelated or only partially related general use

If you wanted to stick with the original sense of the word, a "quantum leap" could mean "the smallest possible change" or "an abrupt change with no intermediate stage" or "a qualitative rather than quantitative difference."

So of course it usually gets used to mean "a really big change."
posted by straight at 11:20 AM on September 2 [7 favorites]


I think growing up in a town with a not-green "Green Bridge" prepared me for this.

People around Philly, including the traffic reports, refer to I476/Veterans Memorial Highway as the Blue Route.
Is it signposted as the Blue Route? No.
Is it named after Joe Blue? No.
Is it colored blue? No, other than on a planning document from 1956.
The building of Interstate 476, and the choosing of the “blue route” that roughly tracked the paths of Crum and Darby creeks through Delaware County, was a multi-decade saga of contention and delay. The notion of a highway roughly along its present-day route dates to 1929. Serious planning began almost as soon as President Eisenhower inked the Federal Aid Highway Act in 1956, ushering in the interstate system.According to www.pahighways.com, the then-Pennsylvania Department of Highways sketched three possible routes for a highway connecting Philadelphia’s western suburbs. The eastern route was alternatively called the Red or Yellow Route. The western route was the Green Route. The Blue Route split the difference.
posted by zamboni at 11:25 AM on September 2 [6 favorites]


There is also the opposite phenomenon, where people self-assuredly declare that an ordinary, everyday expression with a settled common meaning is in fact a term of art being misused. Case in point: those who complain about "begging the question".

That's pretty much the same as any other linguistic change, like the usage of the words "infer" and "imply." There was a time when the phrase "begging the question" was mostly used to mean "assuming the conclusion," but now it often gets used to mean "raises the question." At one time, "infer" almost always meant an act of receiving information and "imply" meant an act of communicating information. But now people frequently use them interchangeably.

It's not wrong to point this out when you see potential for confusion. It's also not wrong to point out that nobody can stop these kinds of changes by being cranky about it.
posted by straight at 11:32 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


(Unsurprisingly, Language Log cites mixed usage of infer and imply regularly since the 16th century, including examples from Sir Thomas More, Milton, Boswell, Jane Austen, and William Faulkner.)
posted by straight at 11:39 AM on September 2 [3 favorites]


If you wanted to stick with the original sense of the word, a "quantum leap" could mean "the smallest possible change" or "an abrupt change with no intermediate stage" or "a qualitative rather than quantitative difference."

So of course it usually gets used to mean "a really big change."


I'd say "abrupt change with no intermediate stage" and "qualitative rather than quantitative difference" are still the guiding ideas behind common usage. A quantum leap is a change that couldn't be anticipated, or whose results couldn't be imagined until it happened, as opposed to a gradual change. The small physical scale of quantum mechanics is extraneous to the metaphor.

(Which, I suppose, is the danger in all metaphors: there are the aspects of the source concept that faithfully map onto the target concept, and then... there are the aspects that don't.)
posted by aws17576 at 11:48 AM on September 2 [2 favorites]


Is this whole thing just another name for an idiom?

Idiom and jargon as I see it. But why use two words with specific meanings when you can use "improper noun," a single word with idiosyncratic and abstruse orientation?
posted by rhizome at 11:54 AM on September 2 [4 favorites]


I see this regularly with the term affordable housing. Affordable housing has a definition for the people involved in the financing and building of it. That definition is not “housing which is affordable to most people” or “housing which the average person can afford”. It means subsidized housing for people who make a specific percentage income less than the area’s median income. It can be endlessly frustrating watching people talk past each other because no one stops yo define what they are talking about when they say affordable housing. People think it should be obvious, but it really isn’t.
(Or is, what most people mean is “housing I can imagine comfortably affording, but that’s not what the official answers generally address. )
posted by meinvt at 12:11 PM on September 2 [9 favorites]


Idiom and jargon as I see it.

It's sneaky jargon that looks like it's not jargon to people who don't know that it's jargon.
posted by Foosnark at 12:12 PM on September 2 [8 favorites]


People around Philly, including the traffic reports, refer to I476/Veterans Memorial Highway as the Blue Route.

I-285 around Atlanta is "the Perimeter" and as far as I know this doesn't appear on any signs anywhere.

And to make it more confusing, "Perimeter" or the "Perimeter area" can sometimes refer to the Perimeter Center area, which is just a specific commercial district that's near that highway. There are even roads around there called Perimeter Center East/West/North.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:28 PM on September 2


I think growing up in a town with a not-green "Green Bridge" prepared me for this.

I still encounter people pretty regularly who are surprised to learn that my county (Orange, NC) is not named for either the fruit or the color (also true of most other Orange-referring locations on the East Coast that are not in Florida). And often those same people are also surprised at just how willing I am to go in depth on various 17th and 18th century royals when I explain. Do you want a family tree? Let me grab a pen.
posted by thivaia at 12:55 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


don't get me started on corporate ads that proclaim "It's in our DNA!"

Corporations are not people. They do not have DNA. If they did, it can only be one thing: "increase shareholder value." But they won't come out and say that, will they?
posted by dum spiro spero at 2:00 PM on September 2 [3 favorites]


The flip side of "technical jargon is often counterintuitive" is "people are primed to think they can undertand technical details with a brief bout of whatever version of close reading they learned in school."

This is the phenomenon by which we all turned into epidemiologists overnight, then climate scientists, then artillery ground war specialists. (Also see under Dunning-Kruger.)

(Close reading peaked in the 50's and only continues to be taught because it's easy to grade. Gauntlet thrown.)
posted by dum spiro spero at 2:06 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I think growing up in a town with a not-green "Green Bridge" prepared me for this.

To add another color to the examples, let me harken back to one of my very first posts: Why are taxicabs in NoVa, and the vehicles of an interstate trucking line, labeled "Yellow" when they're actually orange?

Corporations are not people.

They are in the US, according to the Supreme Court, since 1882 (more)
posted by Rash at 2:41 PM on September 2


@Rash, perhaps my protest was a bit too oblique, but as Bill famously said: "it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is." Though I think, and I hope, we agree on a more fundamental level.
posted by dum spiro spero at 3:21 PM on September 2


Absolutely we do. Just pointing out a legal US peculiarity for non-USian MeFites.
posted by Rash at 3:26 PM on September 2


They discussed everything about the Mathematician Euler, everything but his weird hat.
Then there is his lost time traveler look.
posted by Oyéah at 3:29 PM on September 2


Wait, and political ads, which pretend to be polls.
posted by Oyéah at 3:31 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


A great concept terribly explained.

for the record, it's 512 words (3011 characters) before it gets to an example, and even the bloody example takes almost 60 words to get to the basic point:

It is not green.

It's beige.

Building 54, that is. At MIT.


So this is what Chomsky was talking about when he said 'colorless Green ideas sleep furiously'.

I always wondered.
posted by jamjam at 3:45 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


I will meet you in the grue building. Not the bleen building. The bleen building is dangerous. Don't get them mixed up.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 4:25 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


Does this author write to entertain themselves and their audience, or is this meant in intellectual earnest?

If this is serious, I am confused. We all use and are aware of words and phrases with manifold meanings: beginning a blogpost with the assertion that *most* people would never even *notice* something as obvious and commonplace as this is… ? I get that jargon, regionalisms, or catchphrases that combine common words into meanings that are not simply the sum of their common semantic parts can be confusing, and sometimes even deployed maliciously or with the intent to confuse or exclude people… and yet… to frame your frustration… by combining common words into a meaning that is not simply the sum of their common semantic parts…?

Am I missing something here?
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 4:37 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


dum spiro spero, thank you for articulating something that was really poking me in the ribs.

If a specialist in a field uses words I know to mean something I don’t understand, the first thought around that confusion is that it makes sense, because I am not the intended audience - and the second that, if I want not to be confused, that I can figure out what they *do* mean by researching their definitions and the history of the concept.

I can see that part of what I’m reacting to in this article is a familiar unpleasant flavor, but one I’m not sure is in the writing or in my interpretation - the belief that being kinda smart means one is qualified to Think Deeply and Draw Big Conclusions about any field of expertise, without having to learn anything first.

This has certainly got my gears going. Thanks for starting the conversation, automatronic.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 5:16 PM on September 2 [2 favorites]


Does this author write to entertain themselves and their audience, or is this meant in intellectual earnest?

Probably both.

This is a blog post funded by the author's patreon supporters - who are probably followers of her blog. That's the extent to which it's a professional piece.

I suspect that's what's rubbing people the wrong way isn't so much that she made a post about this kind of misunderstanding, but that her style tends towards the hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing; this is not a revelation to you or me but her style makes it seem like she thinks so. At least, this part does rub me the wrong way. People enjoy talking about language use, so I have no issue with someone writing a post about their observations, but I do think she undercut herself by adopting this style. It's not uncommon in the blogging word, but many people will not react well.

(Yes, I'm including myself there.)

But I think it's worth remembering that this is a blog post on a social journaling site, not something like the New Yorker; the audiences are different - closer, and more self-selected.

... actually, what this post reminds me of is a different language phenomenon: When people think they understand a different dialect much better than they actually do. This can cause issues in situations like a courtroom, where the precise meaning of someone who is testifying can be very important. There is a term of art for this, the "camouflage construction" - that is, a construction that looks like it means one thing in the listener's dialect, but means something else in the speaker's.

A really good example of this is certain constructions in AAE.. People who try to imitate AAE often get these wrong, because they don't realize that these constructions have specific grammatical meanings in AAE (e.g. habitual "be," remote past perfect "been").
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 5:33 PM on September 2 [6 favorites]


Scientific research, the science is good, actionable intel, this article is way too long, not that it could have been a text, but that in these current shallow waters, it's hard to pole the pirougue to the other side of the bayou to see the printout of the conclusion. Since the article is about language usage, the author had oughta done better with the word count. Just because you have a thought and a keyboard, doesn't make you an authority, or even a "writer."
posted by Oyéah at 6:42 PM on September 2


This doesn't discuss what I think is the most interesting part of (what I'm going to call) unmarked jargon.

It's an imperfect, but also fairly decent, class marker. (Particularly for the ways class is marked by education in the US.) It doesn't just mark in-group/out-group. Like, if people are spewing unmarked tech jargon, yes, understanding it marks you as a tech insider, and not understanding it marks you as an outsider. But being able to recognize that you're probably hearing unmarked tech jargon even though you don't speak tech signals that you're middle class enough to know people in tech and be loosely familiar with the concepts, so that you can understand it's a term of art that you don't understand. Similarly, understanding that a lawyer saying "due process" is using a term of art, even though if you're hazy on the specifics, signals you're middle class enough to talk to/read about lawyers and legal cases. My brother-in-law is an agile consultant, and I basically have no idea what he does (although he seems to be good at it), but when he talks about his job, I hear Business Words that I am loosely familiar with because I know lots of people who work in management roles and talk about their jobs with similar Business Words. I don't understand the specifics, but I can usually follow the gist of the story.

But possibly the more interesting class marker that arises from this unmarked jargon is whether or not people are willing to ask. Because saying, "Wait, I don't know what agile is," or "When you say Highly Sensitive Person, what exactly does that mean?" requires either a very specific type of personality OR for you feel secure enough in your education and class status for it not to occur to you that asking will make people think you're stupid or uneducated. People often sit there and think, "OH GOD, did I miss a really important piece of information that everyone knows but me? If I ask, people will know I'm an imposter!" But other people never have these thoughts because they've got a bedrock self-concept of, "I went to Dartmouth, everyone knows I'm a very well-educated person" so they just ASK without that internal monologue.

(When I'm having imposter syndrome, I try to get in touch with my inner Dartmouth Frat Bro, whose unearned self-confidence immunizes him from imposter syndrome. I don't know why my inner Frat Bro went to Dartmouth, he just did.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:01 PM on September 2 [9 favorites]


These kinds of phrases come up all the time in my work, and when I first started I would miss them completely. Now I'm much more alert to any uncapitalised-yet-unusual combinations of words that seem to be taken for granted by the writer, because they tend to be important. Totally agree, Eyebrows, that being able to ask the question is often about class status and feeling secure enough to admit your ignorance. But I do respect people who intervene when they realise that the room is talking at cross-purposes. As I've got older I've tried to be the person who asks basic questions when I'm unsure or when I notice that other people in the room haven't grasped a key piece of information or the meaning of an acronym that's being bandied about, because I know it's not always easy for younger (or older?) staff.

The essay also made me think about combos with additional meanings in ordinary English. Like a butt dial and a booty call, which have very different meanings despite being (more or less) synonyms. In a similar vein, someone in the comments talks about "a niche capability in natural language processing (or I guess I should say, Natural Language Processing) about detecting & handling when a phrase has a meaning that is distinct from the combination of words used in the phrase," and notes how hard it is to do in Chinese social media because the phrases are created partly to get around censorship.
posted by happyfrog at 8:41 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


What color is the Green building painted?

I believe you meant "What color is the boathouse in Hereford?"
posted by wierdo at 9:21 PM on September 2 [1 favorite]


My brother-in-law is an agile consultant, and I basically have no idea what he does

Unless your brother-in-law is a truly exceptional agile consultant, basically what he does is play dress-ups for money.
posted by flabdablet at 10:26 PM on September 2 [5 favorites]


Is Critical Race Theory an interesting example?

Also, when used by the right, “Marxism” can mean any violation of the ideal hierarchical order of a conservative society, from feminism to bike lanes (and probably all the way down to that godawful racket young people are listening to).
posted by acb at 5:48 AM on September 3


Dunno if it’s an improper noun as defined in the article, but “genuine leather” is deliberately obfuscatory for casual consumers.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 10:26 AM on September 3 [1 favorite]


On the subject of infrastructure, Outerbridge Crossing is what you get when your name is Outerbridge and they want to name a bridge after you.

I enjoyed this post, even if it was mostly for the paroxysms over pedantic semantics. As someone in advertising, I feel like we create these all the time. But when they clearly come from marketers, the phrases that stick tend to enter the culture ironically first, until people don’t remember the original source anymore. What is the state of the art, anyway?
posted by Mchelly at 1:01 PM on September 3


The Green building example reminds me of a city south of San Jose named Morgan Hill. There is, in fact, a prominent, solitary, tall (1000 ft) hill in the city, so I imagine most people think that this is 'Morgan Hill' and that the town is named after it. But it isn't.

Morgan Hill is actually the name of the person who founded the town.

I don't know anyway to emphasize when speaking or writing the city name that there is no actual 'hill type structure' being referenced in the city name.

The hill is named 'El Toro'. (Local legend is that the poet Bret Harte decided to climb the hill only to find two angry bulls waiting for him at the top). There is a separate Morgan Hill actually named after a hill in Pennsylvania. That hill is named after Elizabeth Morgan.
posted by eye of newt at 6:18 PM on September 3 [3 favorites]


The flip side of "technical jargon is often counterintuitive" is "people are primed to think they can undertand technical details with a brief bout of whatever version of close reading they learned in school."

"Naming is hard" is one of the top three challenges in computer science*. So technical labels make sense to the person coining an aspect of them only to integrate later, badly.

The world has got more complex in the time I've written this post, so specialist knowledge requires me the sharpen up and I'm in no way entitled to have the expected meaning of eg that 'close reading' match the useful meaning. The boundaries of all our ignorance are large and unknown; I bailed on the wordy link when it seemed like they were complaining about their lack of linguistic dominance and I yawned.

*: the others are counting from zero, keeping caches of valid and efficient items, and off-by-one errors
posted by k3ninho at 4:17 AM on September 4 [2 favorites]


Waterboarding in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba sounds like a fun vacation if you don't know what those things are.

This is rife in tradework generally and electrical specifically because of a combination of apprenticeship learning, conservatism and for electrical the relatively young age of the trade. So many things are named after either the first company to popularize the product or the first/last name of the guy who invented it. And sometimes those last names are deceptive when applied to unrelated products.

So for example a bell box has nothing to do with bells and instead is named after the Bell company founded by Frank BELLeck. A Scotch Lock has nothing to to do with alcohol being a connector sold by 3M who at one time seems to have named everything Scotch Foo. A wiggy is a type of meter originally sold by the Wiggington company. Smurf tube, originally a pretty vibrant blue colour, is now mostly orange and the name is nonsensical to newcomers.

But at least Black Beautys (a type of plastic wire connector) are black even if they have nothing to do with horses.
posted by Mitheral at 11:18 AM on September 6


Like a butt dial and a booty call, which have very different meanings despite being (more or less) synonyms.

"Butt dial" is what you call it when you get part way into a booty call and lose your nerve.
posted by straight at 1:59 AM on September 7 [1 favorite]


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