Icebox lives on

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Dec 7 02:05:08 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
>>   >names.
>>   ~~~~~~
>>   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
>>   readily).
>The process being discussed here is nothing more than "force of habit", also
>called "inertia".

I think there is something more than inertia going on--this is, in
the interesting cases, a classic instance of semantic change of the
same type we have in "bead" or "horn".  A word that originally refers
directly to a given object or material A is characteristically used
in certain contexts that contain a feature B, and later generations
reinterpret the word to refer directly to B (whether or not the
original composition A is present).  Thus A > A(B) > (A)B > B.

>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

I'd draw the boundary in a different place:  either the object
remains essentially the same but a new term is introduced (alongside
or replacing the original) or the term remains the same but the
referent or reference changes (see the "bead" case above).  Or of
course both change.  So for me, it's immaterial whether there are any
glasses anywhere made of glass rather than plastic.  And I suspect
that when and if the last pair of spectacles made from glass breaks,
they'll still be called glasses, not (e.g.) plastics.  Are there any
rubbers (the condom, not galoshes type) made of rubber?  I have no
idea.  But latex, lambskin, whatever, they're rubbers.  And same with
galoshes, whatever THEY end up getting made of.

>"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."

Frigidiare, I think.  Whence "fridge", although I suppose that could
also have come from "refrigerator".  The OED is open-minded about
which was the direct ancestor.

>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".

As mentioned, I think this (the completeness of the changeover) is
irrelevant.  We'll go on calling them glasses anyway, although some
day we may no longer remember why.  (See the related argument by
Putnam about how we went on calling water "water" even when we
changed our mind about water really is.  In that case, water remained
unchanged, but our theories changed.  In the case of glasses or
rubbers it's the composition of the object that changed, but the term
is now understood functionally rather than structurally (as with
horns made of brass rather than animal appendages).

>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.

Exactly.  And in fact brooms could be made of all sorts of things and
still be brooms.

>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?

"Horn" is still in use for the musical instrument, although the word
has other applications (as do "glasses", "rubber", etc.), and
although none of them (at least the French kind) are made from animal

>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.

Could be.  I think it's equally relevant that "tin foil" is easier to
say (a shorter word for a frequently referred to item, as Zipf would
point out) than "aluminum foil".  I'm not sure how much more
explanation we need for the retention of the term.

>  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.

Right--these are cases where the referent has remained the same but
the term has changed, for reasons you point out.  Except that
turntables are back in, with a vengeance.  They're also (still/again)
called record players.  They're big in the DJ world, where vinyl
discs are intentionally scratched for effect. (My son got his twin DJ
turntables through e-Bay, and there are plenty more such pairs where
they came from.)  But there's also a generation (or at least that
subpart of it to which my 18- year-old daughter belongs) who believe
that vinyl discs are "warmer" than CDs--anyway, she has a request in
for one for Christmas, and I see they are indeed being marketed for
the non-DJ crowd.


>"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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list