For some time Dr. Boli has been thinking of building a glossary of a particular kind of term in English. He has no term for this kind of term, and perhaps readers can suggest one. He calls the phenomenon “word drift,” but “drifted words” seems too awkward as a term for the terms affected by the phenomenon.

The terms Dr. Boli has in mind are terms that are misapplied through ignorance of outdated technology. As we forget how old things worked, related but distinct terms drift into the wrong categories.

For example, “SLR camera,” as we see in this demonstration page for a WordPress theme, has come to mean “35-millimeter film camera.” The stock photo shows a rangefinder camera.

From the Independent Publisher 2 demo page. Reproduced for the purpose of criticism and comment.

Originally the term “SLR” (short for single-lens reflex) was invented precisely to exclude rangefinders and every other kind of camera where the photographer did not compose the shot through the taking lens. When not used by professional photographers, the term has drifted into meaning almost the opposite of what it was meant to mean.

Similarly, the term “upright piano” usually refers to spinet or console pianos in classified advertisements. In the days when every house had a piano in the living room, the term “upright” was used to exclude those other vertical pianos: an “upright” was a piano at least 48 inches tall. Piano technicians still use the term that way, but few non-musicians under forty grew up in a house with a piano, and what Dr. Boli still thinks of as the incorrect use has become the majority usage.

The word “tape” has come to refer to any long flexible consumable thing inserted in a device. It is used for “ribbon” when eBay sellers have a typewriter to hawk. It is used for “film” when they talk about cameras.

An antique movie camera is often described as a “camcorder.” A unifocal lens on an old camera is called the “zoom.” The lens cap is called the “shutter.”

Dr. Boli is sure his readers can come up with many other examples of word drift, and he invites them to do so. But what shall we call these drifted words?


  1. The Shadow says:

    Everything sounds hoitier-toitier in Greek, so I asked Google Translate what “drifted” is that language. I got: “Παρασυρόμενη”.

    So I propose Anglicizing slightly and calling the usage “parasyronomy”. The words would then be
    “parasyronomous”, of course. Or perhaps “parasyronyms”.

  2. The Shadow says:

    Bah. I misspelled it. That should be “parasyromeny”, “parasyromenous”, and perhaps “parasyromenyms”.

  3. The Shadow says:

    As for examples, the very word “camera” is one. It meant something rather different a few centuries ago!

    “Computer” is another, as is “calculator”. Both used to be words referring to people!

  4. Belfry Bat says:

    Failure of meaning… hmm… dissemia! Or dissemiosis? The poor victims, dissemiots; some while ago some notorious academician decided he needed a word for “a basic unit of communicable thought”, and now “meme” gets used for hugely complex and arbitrary games played over the internet. “Meme” is a poor dissemiot indeed…

    From having been a Mathematician/physicist, “function”, “energy”, “dimension”, “momentum”, “inertia”, and “exponential” all emerge to annoy me from time to time. Of course, mathematicians and physicists like to transpropriate words themselves, all the time…

  5. The Shadow says:

    “Exponential” can be quite vexing, I agree. I once saw someone use it when “quadratic” would have been correct!

    The perpetrators of word drift using my schema would of course be “parasyromorons”.


    Word accretion

  7. DmL says:

    I like antinym because it approaches being one itself.

    Summanym I like because it rolls of the tongue and mixes roots.

  8. Mary says:

    Thank you Dr Boli for bringing this to our attention.

    And O! I see so many examples! My (so young) coworkers call diskettes “floppy disks” and any and all forms of vinyl based recording technology are “LP”

    As to a word for the phenomenon…I like “syncretion”. Not least because it doesn’t *quite* mean what it ought.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Recording technology is a fertile ground for spotting these things. Old shellac records from the 1920s are often, perhaps usually, called “albums,” whereas everyone ought to know that an “album” is the bound book of sleeves in which you store a collection of such records. The LP record was called an “album” metaphorically, because it could store the contents of a bound book of records on one disc. Similarly, we hear open-reel tapes called “cartridges” or “cassettes,” and very young people (under thirty, that is) have been heard referring to CDs as “DVDs.” A record player from before the age of stereophonic sound is nevertheless a “stereo.” And even educated jazz critics will refer to a lesser-known recording of a 1920s or 1930s song as a “cover,” a term that assumes the musical economy of the 1960s or later and is nonsense in an era when songs originated with music publishers and were recorded by every record company with whatever band was conveniently in the studio.

      Clearly this comment should have been a whole article on its own.

  9. Daniel says:

    “Literally” is but an emphatic word for “figuratively” now. In the history of philosophy, “subject” and “object” completely traded meaning some time since Thomas Aquinas!

  10. D. Smolken says:

    One example of localized drift I’m personally fond of: “deejay” has come to mean “vocalist” in Jamaica, because in the local soundsystems the job done by the disk jockey in the rest of the world was split into the selector and the deejay. As that arrangement left the deejay with not much to do, deejays took up vocals in their spare time. Later, deejays whose vocals were more melodic became known as singjays, to distinguish them from deejays whose vocals retain the traditional deejay style.

  11. KevinT says:

    Bolusism – incorporating the singularly fecal nature of word drift. (Apologies to Dr. Boli…)

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