September 4, 2014

Random Language Notes

I’ve been accumulating several language issues I’ve wanted to write about, and I thought I’d just deal with all of them in one post.


My suspicion is that most people use sewage and may not even know sewerage. They may even think the latter term to be made up or a mispronunciation. As it happens, however, both terms originated around 1830. Sewage is waste carried through a system of pipes for disposal. Sewerage can mean the same thing. (That’s the confusing thing about these two words.) More commonly, however, sewerage refers either to the sewer infrastructure or the process of removing waste via such an infrastructure.

I grew up in New Orleans, where sewers were the responsibility of the Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, so, probably unlike most people, I learned sewerage before I learned sewage.


Both dissociate and disassociate are old words, having been invented around Shakespeare’s time. Again, people may know one term and not the other and think that the unfamiliar word is wrong. In practice, the terms are pretty much synonymous.

Probably because I am influenced by the use of the term dissociation in chemistry, to dissociate for me suggests splitting a union into more or less equal parts, whereas to disassociate suggests one part splitting from a larger body. (The partners decided to dissociate. Roger concluded that he had to disassociate from his club.) Others may be influenced in their choice of words by the psychological concept of dissociation. I’m not really sure how that idea affects one’s perception of the distinction, if any, between dissociate and disassociate.


In a currently running NPR underwriting announcement, social is being used to mean social media. I find this jarring, and I had to hear the announcement several times before convincing myself that I had understood it correctly.

I can think of a several instances where people have taken a multi-word substantive and dropped all but the first word. Microwave oven has universally become simply microwave. Less commonly, transistor radio was shortened to transistor. In some contexts, Social Security number (or Social Security account number, SSAN) has become social. In a related transformation, long-playing record has simply become LP.

Some of these contractions work better than others. Microwave, I think, works well because hardly anyone has occasion to refer to one microwave and because references to objects such as a microwave cavity are confined to highly technical contexts.

I have always been upset by transistor to mean transistor radio. I had a clear idea in my own mind of what a transistor was and knew that many devices other than small radios used them. I therefore found the shortened term confusing and imprecise. Others may not have been bothered in the same way I was.

I do strongly object to social as a noun standing in for a longer phrase. Too many commonly used terms begin with social: social graces, social disease, social science, social work, social contract, social climber, etc. Moreover, social already has a meaning; a social is a kind of gathering or party. Perhaps this usage began as a nineteenth-century phrase, but, if so, I don’t know what that phrase might have been. The most common use of social as a noun today is likely in the phrase ice cream social. Perhaps we should just call that an ice cream.

Update, 9/5/2014. I heard the NPR underwriting announcement again today and realized it was for Constant Contact. One of the links on the home page of the company is labeled SOCIAL. The page linked to is about social campaigns, which, of course, use social media. If Constant Contact is using social to mean social campaigns, the usage is even stranger than I thought.

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