He possessed names for all of them in his head

« previous post | next post »

You have to see this cute article by Giles Turnbull. It's about the deep-seatedness of children's need to have names for all the things they deal with — and the lack of any necessity for there to be pre-existing names in the language they happen to have learned.
Hat tip: Al Teigum.


  1. fiddler said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    Dr. Pullum said "cute."

  2. Al said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 8:17 pm

    I know this isn't a tech blog, but you should have mentioned that it involves LEGOs.

    Or maybe I read too many tech blogs…

  3. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 8:31 pm

    I know digressions can be frowned upon, but one possible digression here is the competing plural forms for "Lego". Some Lego, or some Legos?

  4. Uly said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    It's interesting how similar the two older kids (outside entries) are compared to the younger ones. I wonder if that's intrinsic to them, or if their personal terminology changed as they got older.

  5. Fencing Bear said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 10:07 pm

    Some LEGO bricks.

  6. mollymooly said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

    @Skullturf: For me, "Lego" is a mass noun. I have only heard "Legos" from Americans: is it a count noun, like "sports", or a plurale tantum, like "accommodations"?

  7. Tim said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 10:13 pm

    In my experience and usage (as an American), it is definitely a count noun. As in, "It really hurts when you step on a Lego." Or, "I looked under the couch and found five Legos."

  8. empty said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

    Further digression: Where did the expression "a savings" come from?

  9. Bobbie said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 11:25 pm

    Reminds me of the way we used to describe (missing) pieces of a jigsaw puzzle… "I need a two-in, two-out red one….."

  10. Neal Whitman said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 11:35 pm

    I blogged about Lego(s) as a mass or count noun here a few years ago.

  11. landgrvi said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 11:47 pm

    I have a young friend who is very inquisitive. One day I asked her, "What do you call it when you ask questions just to get people to answer you?" to which she promptly replied "zoomaboo."

    Knowing that, this article made me wonder: do all children have a name for that behavior? 'Cause I think most of them do it.

  12. Bryan D said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 12:06 am

    I, as many have, grew up playing with lego bricks and still have a fair many of them. For me it will always be legos not lego for the plural.

    I think may be I have a bias for using names as count nouns rather than mass nouns though. I wouldn't say 'there are 20 Jason in the room', I'd say there are 20 Jasons in the room. Also, 20 Playstations rather than 20 Playstation, is more natural as well for me.

  13. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 12:49 am

    Since it was brought up:

    Normally, I don't think Canadian grammar differs very much from American, but I am Canadian and Lego played a huge role in my childhood. I always thought "Legos" sounded wrong to me.

  14. Mick O said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 1:33 am

    After reading that grid, I'm fairly certain "Max" is on some alternate plane of reality. Those answers seem made up to enforce the "cuteness" of the article. I have my doubts if he uses those terms in his inner building monologue.

  15. Acilius said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 1:40 am

    That no one uses the official names of the Lego pieces must show that no one looks at the official names of them. I base this assertion on the fact that one of the pieces in the article, referred to variously by the children as "microphone," "hose two," "the gun," and "blaster piece," is officially designated "butt." No seven year old in the English speaking world could look at that name and use another. I would guess that the fact that children ignore the official nomenclature and invent their own shows their confidence in their own ability to produce intelligible names.

  16. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 5:59 am

    OK, ignoring for a moment the kids' terms, why did Lego themselves choose to described something that is clearly some kind of console as a "Roof Tile 2X2 45° No. 2" ? That /really/ puzzles me !

  17. Jenno said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 7:21 am

    @Philip TAYLOR: The piece didn't come out of the box looking like a console. That's a sticker applied later, when you once (and only once) put together the set according to the instructions to make whatever is pictured on the box. After that, the pieces go in a giant plastic bin for free-form building. Naked, the piece is definitely a roof tile. Without the sticker, the kids would have probably called it a "two-er slopey bit."

  18. Adam said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 9:43 am

    @Skullturf Q. Beavispants:
    "Lego" is a mass noun in the UK too, where people find the AmE "Legos" very strange.

  19. Peter Taylor said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 10:00 am

    @Acilius, I played with Lego (mass noun – I can't think offhand of a company name which I use as a count noun) as a child and was unaware until today that there were official names for the pieces. Lego didn't use them on any of the packaging or instructions, presumably because they would have had to include a key with diagrams and so it was simpler to just use diagrams.

    I have names for about half of the pieces in the article. The "Brick axb" I would refer to as "a by b", with modifiers "flat" and "smooth" as appropriate. Most of the non-brick pieces are new to me. I'd better shut up now before I start telling people to get off my lawn.

  20. Marie said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    I love this. When I was 4, I was busily looking on the floor for a "peaked roof tile" to finish a house. It was during a nor'easter and the window blew in and glass went flying across the room. If I hadn't been looking down for that piece, I would have caught glass in the face. Instead I lost a chunk of scalp – still have the scar 45 years later. If you played with Legos back then, you know how few peaked roof tiles were in a set, and how much smaller the Lego vocabulary needed to be.

  21. John Lawler said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

    One is reminded of Funes el Memorioso, which David Beaver blogged about here last year. Funes also had names in his head, for everything.

  22. Cheryl Thornett said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 2:14 pm

    But don't begin every other sentence with 'and', as the writer of one children's book did, quite literally. I loathed that book after the third reading, finally crossed out about half the 'ands', but still hated reading it. My son, alas, loved it. I had to excuse him as he was about 3 at the time.

  23. Craig said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    I'm an American who finds the plural "Lego" completely normal, and I think I parse it the same way I parse drug names. For example, "Take two Advil."

    Looking over the children's name lists, I have the impression that the seven-year-olds have a more systematized Lego nomenclature built up of more structural descriptors; whereas, the younger children seem to have a richer Lego nomenclature, based more on descriptions that feel more fluid, ad hoc.

    The older children's nomenclature seems to be very extensible – analogous pieces get analogous descriptions – and these can be built upon when new pieces are added. For instance, I have no doubt that Barney also has eighters and sixteeners. The younger children's nomenclature seems more adapted to describing the pieces to be played with individually rather than as parts to be assembled into a whole.

  24. Lazar said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    I'm an American from Massachusetts, and I've only ever known Legos as a countable noun.

  25. Dan T. said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    The Lego company discourages using "Legos" as the plural, because they feel it endangers their trademark. They're properly "Lego brand bricks", since using a trademark as a noun or a verb is discouraged by trademark lawyers. (But that's just a band-aid solution; give me a kleenex for me to cry into as I mourn the genericide of proud trademarks… I'll google up a list of them and xerox it for you.)

  26. speedwell said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 4:29 pm

    I work as an administrator for an engineering parts and assemblies database. When I teach engineers why we need standardized classification and nomenclature, I ought to reference this article. :)

  27. Rubrick said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 6:53 pm

    A fascinating research question: if members of different Lego language communities are thrown together, how many generations does it take to create proper creolego?

  28. TB said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

    Mick O, I don't know, some of Max's terms are exactly the ones I used, like "the seat" and "the gun".

  29. Mr Punch said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 7:53 pm

    Another American from Massachusetts) – Legos, precisely because the word is tending toward the generic. Also, Lego blocks are the whole thing – unlike, say, Scrabble tiles, which certainly aren't "scrabbles."

  30. mollymooly said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 8:01 pm

    I guess the company must always have had internal names for each piece, but the instructions were always visual a la Ikea.

    You can now custom order specific bricks on their website at Lego pick-a-brick, which displays the official name of all 1409 types.I doubt this was possible in pre-internet days; I can't imagine kids writing "please send me five blue twoer slopey bits and a green spinny bit, cash on delivery".

    I imagine the computer-game editions, which allow you an infinite number of virtual bricks, also provide the official names.

  31. Simon Spero said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 8:44 pm

    The labels may vary, but the concepts for all possible LEGO bricks are innate. Did you never own the Jerry Fodor LEGO playset?

  32. D.O. said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

    To shift discussion somewhat back from Lego(s) to sentence initial And and But, I propose to look at the ultimate piece of formal writing in the U.S., the Constitution (thus other countries may choose for themselves). My source of the text is (somewhat insufficiently) wikisource. The original 1787 text is heavy on ands and buts after semicolons, some others follow colons with the first capital letter, but let's be strict. Only those ands and buts which follow a full stop count. Here we have:
    Article I, Section 7: But in all such Cases… Article II, Section 1: And they shall make a List of all the Persons… But in chusing the President… But if there should remain… Article IV, Section 1: And the Congress may by general Laws prescribe…

    There are no examples in the Bill of Rights. And Art. II, sec. 1 is in relevant parts overriden by 12th amendment (ratified 1804), which helpfully has: But in choosing the President… (only the spelling of choose has changed), And if the House of Representatives… But no person constitutionally ineligible…

    Moving forward:Amendment XIV (ratified 1868), Section 2: But when the right to vote at any election… Section 3: But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds… Section 4: But neither the United States nor any State… Amendment XXII (ratified 1951), Section 1: But this Article shall not apply to any person…
    Thus, if the encountered zombie is American, you have a good chance to escape by brandishing the Constitution and demanding that only an explicit interpretation to the contrary by the Supreme Court (which, I am sure, is also no shy in using sentence initial conjunctions) will change your point of view.

  33. D.O. said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    Sorry, my post belongs to another thread. Arghhhh. I will repost it. Moderator is urged to remove it from here.

  34. deadgod said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 12:07 am

    "Where did the expression "a savings" come from?"

    empty, let me guess that 'savings', 'earnings', 'winnings', and the like are pluralized gerunds, of the Hopeful category. 'Savings' becomes an adjective, by the noun-in-front-of-another-noun rule ('classroom door'): 'savings account'. Then, by attraction to nouns it collocates with (like 'account'), 'savings' is countable: 'a savings of $10 [with that one coupon]'.


  35. Graeme said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 5:55 am

    'Lego' in Strine translates to 'Would you please take your hand off me' in standard English.

  36. Janice Huth Byer said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 8:13 am

    Whether we deem the Bible to be truth or fiction, I expect we can agree its chief protagonist is the quintessential dad, whose paternal mindset likely mirrors that of human fathers of that era. Compared to modern dads, God is quite the authoritarian, so it's rather touching to read in the second chapter of Genesis, that, same as Giles Turnbull, God knows when to defer.

    From the King James version: "And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and fowl of the air and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them. And whatsoever Adam called every living creature that *was* the name thereof."

  37. Ken Brown said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    The author of the piece uses "Lego" as a mass noun and calls the individual pieces "pieces" or "bricks" or "bits". Which is all proper and as it should be.

    But whoever wrote the running head above it seems deeply confused: "Thousands of different Lego exist"

    Where is that from? Some Americans might have written "Thousands of different Legos exist". Us Brits would probably say "kinds of Lego" or "different lego bricks" or something like that (the mass noun "Lego" does not apply to individual pieces) But who says "different Lego exist?"

  38. outeast said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 9:51 am

    I wonder just how many of these names the kids really had prior to the – um – experiment? I know my eldest (3) hates to admit to ignorance; if I ask him what something is called and he knows neither the Czech nor English name he'll invariably make up a nonceword on the spot…

  39. dwmacg said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Interesting table at the end, there. Has anyone tried to use it to reconstruct proto-Lego?

    (Another Bay Stater here; our plural was Legos. I don't recall having names for the pieces, but in our house Legos were usually not a social pasttime.)

  40. Dan T. said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 12:28 pm

    Leggo my Eggo!

  41. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    Using Millymooly's observation and question "I have only heard "Legos" from Americans: is it a count noun, like "sports", or a plurale tantum, like "accommodations"?" as starting point, may I temporarily hijack this thread to discuss "accommodations" in <Am.E> and <Br.E>? In my idiolect, and as far as I know, in <Br.E> in general, "accommodations" is no longer used, at least in the sense of of "a room or place in which to stay" (the 1933 OED says of this sense, ""Formerly mostly in pl"). However, when this word arose yesterday in another context, and when I suggested that it would be better cast as "accommodation", several native speakers of <Am.E> argued against, and on taking a straw poll, I find that there seems to be a tendency in <Am.E> to treat "accommodations" as a /plurale tantum/, as Mollymooly observed. Could other native speakers of <Am.E> and <Br.E> please comment from their perspective ?

  42. Katherine said,

    November 9, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    @Jenno: I had one of those where the console details were printed on. I wonder if the official name is the same or if they called it something different back then. I much preferred when they printed them on, I just can't line the stickers up on the bricks to my satisfaction. And what about when they tell you to put one sticker across more than one brick? So annoying.

    About the Lego vs Legos debate, NZer I've always called them "some Lego". And I disagree with genericising them, there are NO other bricks as good as Lego and I doubt anyone that has ever played with Lego (or Legos) would disagree with me. However I don't agree that that sort of thing should hurt their ability to protect their trademark. Anyway the singular of "Lego" is "brick" or "piece". So there.

  43. Peter Taylor said,

    November 10, 2009 @ 5:18 am

    @Philip Taylor: en-gb here. I use accommodation (uncountable), but lodgings. ("Lodging" doesn't sound wrong but it doesn't trip to the tongue easily).

    With respect to my earlier comment, I have thought of some company names which I use as count nouns: namely computer companies. I will talk of Apples or Dells, meaning in each case computers made by the corresponding company.

  44. Janice Huth Byer said,

    November 10, 2009 @ 7:35 am

    Philip Taylor: Hi. I'm a speaker of American English for whom "accommodations" entails not only "a room or place in which to stay" but also everything within that might serve to accommodate the guest, from linens to central heating to chocolates on the pillow. In other words, for me an accommodation would be merely an empty place to lay my tired head. Hence, at a hotel, I always seek accommodations.

    On the other hand, unlike our British friend, Peter Taylor, above, I seek lodging never lodgings. That is, unless I'm booking rooms, say, for a group or multiple rooms for a trip. Only then would I seek lodgings.

  45. Philip TAYLOR said,

    November 10, 2009 @ 1:21 pm

    Peter Taylor : yes, for me, "lodgings" is also the only form I would use as a substantive, although "lodging" is clearly normal when used verbally.

    Janice Huth Byer : this one I would really like to explore further, because it emphasises not only that we are "two nations divided by a common language" but also that each of us (speaking, as it were, on behalf of our respective nations) frequently has little real idea of what the other means when he/she uses a word with which we are very familiar but which each of us uses in a subtly different sense. For example, I visit my friends; you (I imagine) visit with them. So whereas my usage is concerned solely with the fact that they live somewhere other than I do, and that in order to meet them at their home I have to travel and arrive at their home at a time when they are in (my sense of "visit"), I suspect that your usage places far more emphasis on what you do once the travel is complete and after you have entered their home. In the same way, it is quite clear from what you write about "accommodation(s)" that if you were to write to a hotel asking if they had any accommodation available for the night of (say) 3rd December, your expectations would be different to mine. Yes, I would expect a room, and I would expect a bed, and bed linen (interesting : again you use the plural form here, whilst I use the singular), and facilities for washing and related activities; whilst if you asked the same question using the singular form, you might expect to be offered rather less than if you used the plural form. Have I understood you correctly ?

  46. Sandra Wilde said,

    November 10, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    And one more wrinkle – why does everyone spell it Legos rather than Legoes (like cargoes) or Lego's (like Levi's)?

  47. Terry Collmann said,

    November 13, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    Acilius: "one of the pieces in the article, referred to variously by the children as "microphone," "hose two," "the gun," and "blaster piece," is officially designated "butt." No seven year old in the English speaking world could look at that name and use another."

    No child in the American English-speaking world. If a British child knew the word "butt" (not likely, even if they were regular watchers of the Disney Channel) it would only be in the context of a large container at the bottom of a gutter downpipe, used to collect and store rainwater for watering their parents' garden.

RSS feed for comments on this post