Icebox lives on
James A. Landau
JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Fri Dec 6 19:59:24 UTC 2002
In a message dated 12/6/02 12:44:31 PM Eastern Standard Time,
sagehen at WESTELCOM.COM writes:
> Larry writes:
> >I think the idea was that brooms aren't made from broom any longer,
> >nor are glasses made from glass, but we still call them by those
> Not entirely true. I still buy brooms made from broom corn, and my glasses
> have glass lenses (which I specify, since the plastic ones scratch far too
The process being discussed here is nothing more than "force of habit", also
Once a word enters your vocabulary, you keep using it unless you have a
reason to change. There are numerous possible reasons, e.g.
1) you happen to like the new/slang/newly fashionable replacement
2) even you admit the old term is archaic
3) the old term becomes ambiguous or obscure
4) the old term is no longer needed
5) there is a change in technology, or other change in the item being
described, so that the old term no longer applies to what you want to discuss
"icebox" is a strong example of 5). A refrigerator is quite a different item
from an icebox. The former can include a freezer. The latter cannot, and
requires the blatant presence of an iceman on a regular basis. During the
changeover period (the 1930's and 1940's, I think) people had to use both
terms because both appliances were used and had to be distinguished. Also,
perhaps not too incidentally, General Motors (who were the first to sell
refrigerators nationally) put a certain amount of advertising money behind
the word "refrigerator."
note that even in this age of the electric refrigerator, we still refer to
as for "glasses", as Sage Hen points out, they are still available with glass
lenses, because glass does not scratch as easily as the polycarbonate plastic
widely used for corrective lenses. (Polycarbonate is lighter and tougher,
which is why it has become so popular). Since the changeover is still
incomplete, may never be complete, and has been gradual, and since it takes a
close inspection to distinguish glass from polycarbonate, there has been no
reason to stop using the term "glasses". Also, the alternate term
"spectacles" is borderline archaic.
as for "broom", most 21st Century city-dwellers are unaware that there is
such a plant as "broom" and never have occasion to wonder what material is
used in that household utensil. (A sweeping device I bought two weeks ago
was made from broom---I know this only because I happened to read the label.)
Furthermore there is no usable synonym for "broom" meaning the
utensil---"besom" is so archaic as to be unrecognizable even to the average
So, both "broom" and "glasses" fail to generate a need for change under 3),
4), or 5) above. Is it surprising that they are still in use?
(OT note: Benjamin Franklin not only invented the bifocal "spectacles", he
also developed broom corn, which is actually sorghum rather than maize.)
What about "tinfoil"? There was a technological change, with foil made of
tin being replaced by aluminum foil, but a different piece of conservatism
was active here. "Tin" in addition to meaning the element also has the
meaning in English of "thin, weak, flimsy", particularly when applied to
metallic items such as tinfoil. Some examples: in the Civil War the Union
Navy built a number of arnored gunboats that had much thinner armor than
previous gunboats. These new boats became known as "tinclads" even though
their armor was made of wrought iron. And the Wizard of Oz (1900?) has a
character known as "the tin woodsman" or "the Tinman" although he is
definitely made of iron rather than tin, since he rusts. We still refer to a
sheet metal worker as a "tinsmith" although such an artisan never works in
sheet tin and some never work with tinplate. Conclusion: nobody every
popularized a synonym for "tin" meaning "flimsy" so to this day aluminum foil
is correctly referred to as "tinfoil" because it is flimsy.
Consider "steam roller" and "steam shovel". Neither rollers nor shovels have
used steam for much of a century---even the celebrated "Ruissian steam
roller" has long since been Dieselized. Yet to anyone except the operator of
construction equipment, the type of engine used in a power roller or a power
shovel is not particularly relevant---it's not like the electric
refrigerator, which eleminated the need for an iceman to deliver to your
Now for some terms that have changed.
"Mongoloid idiot" and "Mongolism" --> Down's syndrome. PC sometimes succeeds.
"Indian" --> "Native American" only partially successful, although it is
needed (the owner of the company I work for is an Indian. He is from Bombay.)
"Negro" --> "black" --> "African-American". Here it was the people being
described who insisted on the changes. It is very hard to remember that
until the mid-60's "Negro" WAS the PC term.
player-->phonograph-->stereo-->turntable-->oblivion. This one I cannot
explain. Edison named the thing "phonograph". "Victrola" was a trade name,
long since abandoned. "Stereo" represents a technological advance, from
monaural to stereophonic records. I imagine that "turntable" became
necessary with the advent of stereo tapes etc. The other changes may simply
have been fashion. When did you last hear of a "hi-fi"?
Within the aviation business:
stewardess--> flight attendant. probably has something to do with it ceasing
to be an all-female profession.
cockpit-->flight deck. I think this was a euphemism introduced by the
airlines, who didn't want their passengers to think of fighter planes.
vertical stabilizer-->tail fin. I suspect this was done solely as an
Now for one that I am unsure of. Growing up in Kentucky, I was used to
hearing asphalt (on a roadway) referred to as "blacktop". I haven''t heard
"blacktop" in years. Was it a regionalism? Or was it a victim of
technological change, as there no longer is any great supply of gravel or
dirt roads left to be "blacktopped"?
- Jim Landau
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