Pre-Archaic Industrial Jargon

James A. Landau <> JJJRLandau at NETSCAPE.COM
Wed Mar 14 22:05:13 UTC 2012

At one time (pre-railroad) barges were "towed", that is, pulled, by mules.  In the Mississippi Valley barges are pushed by Diesel-powered boats, but invariably the barges are said to be "towed" by the "towboat", even though it is a matter of pushing rather than pulling.  A cluster of barges tied together and towed as a unit is said to be a "tow of barges".

Cheap cigars are still called "stogies" even though the men who made them famous, the "stogy" (Conestoga wagon) drivers who made them famous are no more.

Until 1861 (specifically the Civil War) bullets were invariably spherical, hence the count noun "round (of ammunition)".  The Civil War was fought by riflemen who used a more-or-less conical---definitely not spherical---bullet that was still called a Minie/ "ball".  Not only is ammunition still counted in "rounds", but there is still a category known as "ball ammunition".

Continuing with ammunition, "shrapnel" has not been used since the 19th Century.  Yet we still speak of "shrapnel" when in fact we mean "fragmentation weapons."  In fact, there is no good term for the fragments of metal which do the dirty work in frag weapons, so we still use the incorrect "shrapnel".

Not that common a term, but "grapeshot" is still occasionally used, even though grape shot has not been used since the 19th Century.

Dynamite is nitroglycerin that has been absorbed by an inert material, typically diatomaceous earth.  Nobody has used dynamite in ages; it has been entirely replaced by less toxic and more powerful explosives.

Portmanteau words?  Yes, but when was the last time you saw a portmanteau?

How long will "film" continue to be used as a synonym for "movie", even though nowadays movie theaters use digital projection.

In stagecraft the colored filter that is placed over a spotlight to produce a colored spot is called a "gel" even though it is now made of plastic rather than gelatine.  (A practical joke that is no longer practical is to hand a gel to a novice stagehand and tell him it's dirty; please wash it.  A gelatine gel will, of course, dissolve in water.)

     - Jim Landau, in curmudgeon mode

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