320 kg or 4 people

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Hesitant though I am to take on still more uses of or (most recently discussed here) — this could quickly become an endless chain of fascinating data — here's one that at first is puzzling, until you figure out what people are trying to do with it. It came from Benjamin Massot, a French linguist currently living in Germany, who noticed signs like the following in lifts (or, as we say in American English, elevators):

French: capacité: 320kg ou 4 personnes

German: Tragfähigkeit: 320kg oder 4 Personen

In English, 320 kg or 4 persons. Massot tried at first to figure out who (the lift company or the users of the elevator) would be declared responsible in case of an accident, for various combinations of weights, numbers of people, and interpretations of or, but eventually concluded (correctly, I think) that in this context a limit of "320 kg or 4 persons" just meant 320 kg.

The use of or here is a special case of the OED's sense 4:

Connecting two words denoting the same thing: = otherwise called, that is

as in my "lifts (or, as we say in American English, elevators)" above. Or in "320 kg (or 705.5 lbs.)" (though this example shows that the OED should say "connecting two expressions"). Or in "common, or garden, rocket", referring to a variety in the genus Eruca that's grown for its edible leaves — the salad green also known commonly as arugula — as opposed to wild and weedy varieties. (Entertainingly, such uses of "common, or garden" have given rise to the idiom common or garden, meaning 'very ordinary'.)

But this doesn't quite work for the elevator sign, because "320 kg" and "4 persons" don't denote the same thing. Instead, we have here an extension of the 'same denotation' sense of or to take in expressions whose denotations are equivalent in some looser way. In this case, the denotations are roughly — but only roughly — equivalent as indications of the capacity limit of the the elevator. This limit is set by some agency at 320 kg. What, then, is the "or 4 persons" doing on the sign?

Suppose the sign had just said "320 kg"; that would give the limit precisely. But how are passengers on the elevator to use this information? To calculate their total weight as a group, they'd have to estimate each passenger's weight (or ask each passenger their weight) and then do some quick arithmetic — not a task many people would be willing to do. So the sign makers provided an alternative formulation of the limit that's much easier to calculate: the number of passengers, using 80 kg (176.4 lbs.) as an approximation to the weight of an average person. This is intended to be useful, and it surely is. The calculation can even be adjusted on the spot to take into account passengers (like small children) whose weight is far from the average. But the actual limit is 320 kg, period.





  1. gyokusai said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

    Nitpicking alert —

    it should read „Tragfähigkeit: 320kg oder 4 Personen“ instead of „Personnen“ …


  2. ST said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    This seems similar to the use of "or" with a phrase like "whichever is less" or "whichever is first" is added. For example, "Payment is due 30 days after delivery or June 30, whichever is later." The two expressions could mean the same thing but they probably don't. Neither the inclusive nor exclusive meanings of "or" make much sense in that expression.

  3. Theodore said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 3:40 pm

    I understand the stated limits to mean that neither value should be exceeded, e.g. five people should not ride even if they only weigh 60kg each.

    Is there a structural engineer in the house? I think the distinction between dead and live loads is behind this.

  4. Freddy Hill said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 3:57 pm

    Many lifts and even elevators in public places have an overload sensor. To my knowledge those sensors work exclusively on weight.

    On the other hand, I'm reminded a weeklong business stay in a hotel that happened to booked to capacity with middle-schoolers on school trips to Washington D.C. The hotel's elevators were constantly filled with wat seemed like dozens of extremely active and noisy 13 year-olds who seemed to find riding the elvators a much more exhilarating experience than visiting the Lincoln memorial. Sharing daily rides with them to and from my 6th floor room was a truly terrifying experience. The alarm did not go off even once. So, yes, I wish that the max number of people meant something.

  5. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 3:58 pm

    Are these small lifts? Perhaps the signs indicate limits on two different metrics: a weight limit (320 kg) and a space limit (4 persons). The lift could support the weight of 5 average people, but it isn't really big enough to hold 5 people.

    The space limit might be a way for the lift-makers to cover their legal butts in case that fifth person crams himself/herself/themself(?) into the lift and then gets his finger (or some more tender appendage) pinched in the closing door.

  6. Brett said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 4:07 pm

    I think this analysis is right on. It's just like, "Bake 22 minutes, or until golden brown." The actual goal is to get the muffins golden brown, but the time is offered as a rough equivalent, because it's easier to work with. (It's easier to set a timer than to check the muffin's color periodically, just as it's easier to count people rather than figure out their total weight.)

  7. Tobia Paolini said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

    I live in Italy where that type of sign is the norm in lifts and I always interpreted as space limit / weight limit. Such lifts tend to be quite small anyway, everybody knows they only fit four people.
    80 kg is what is still commonly assumed to be the standard male weight in Italy. A a female friend of mine, whenever an airline tried to make her pay if her luggage was a few kg over the 20 kg limit, always offered to go on the scales herself with her bags, claiming that herself (50 kg) and the luggage would still weight less than any male passenger without luggage. She usually got away with it…

  8. Karen said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 4:37 pm

    Reminds of the (apocryphal) story of the Gurkhas loading regiments onto trains marked 32 men / 8 horses – with 32 men AND 8 horses in each car.

  9. Arnold Zwicky said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 6:14 pm

    Gm "Personnen" now fixed as "Personen".

  10. john riemann soong said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

    "Many lifts and even elevators in public places have an overload sensor."

    But since lifts are elevators, won't one say, "lifts or elevators"…?

  11. Stephen Jones said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 8:15 pm

    It's either 320 kg or 4 persons as the maximum load.

  12. Garrett Wollman said,

    April 24, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

    In architectural engineering jargon, a distinction is made between "lifts" and "elevators". (I of course speak solely of the U.S. here.) Not being an architectural engineer, I don't know what the precise jargon distinction is, but it seems to be related to the nature of the guideway: elevators move through a fully-enclosed shaft, whereas lifts move along an exposed channel. More specifically, a lift is usually an assistive device intended to be used by people who cannot climb stairs, whereas an elevator is provided for convenience.

    This obviously need not concern anyone who isn't involved in architecture or property management.

  13. Moses said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 3:44 am


    There's a linguistic difference between US and UK English here.
    Elevator (US) = Lift (UK). We also talk about chairlifts or stairlifts when specifying the assistive devices you mention.

  14. Peter Howard said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 5:19 am

    I think Andy Hollandbeck has it right. Lifts I have known that have this sort of sign are too small to hold more than four persons (unless they are very good friends), even if the combined weight is less than 320kg.

    So I think the sign means: "If you are using this lift to transport persons, don't try to fit more than four at a time. If you are using this lift to transport goods, don't add more than 320kg worth at a time. If you are using this lift to transport a combination of goods and persons, you'll have to work it out for yourself."

  15. Joshua said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 5:24 am

    The space/weight distinction is definitely important, at least in small elevators. I work in a hotel with an extremely tiny elevator (small enough that one person and a luggage cart can fit, but if the luggage carting party is larger than one, two trips are necessary) which contains a sign reading "1200 lbs. or 4 occupants." Obviously, the average weight rule doesn't apply here, since it's somewhat unlikely that 4 300 lb. people will be trying to ride the elevator at once and even if they tried they would assuredly not fit (at 275 pounds, I'm certain that only three of me could ride the elevator at once) but five people, of almost any size, would have to cram themselves in to ride, which is a distinct safety concern.

  16. outeast said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 5:55 am

    While the point about the limit to the number of people who may in practice fit in a small lift may be true, I don't agree that this is what is being indicated in such signs: whether a person desirous of being elevated should endure armpit-nuzzling proximity to the other occupants of the lift or wait for the next available lift is surely not something with which the manufacturers are concerned. The idea that the stated number of people is simply intended as an approximation of the weight limit makes far more sense: the 'or' thus has the meaning of 'equivalent to'.

    (OT: One of the leading Czech manufacturers of elevators is (or rather, was) a firm called something like 'Schindleruv Vytahy'; it caused me mild amusement when I first noticed this, as it translates as 'Schindler's Lifts'…)

  17. Moses said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 6:10 am

    Schindler's Lifts still exists, and is a successful manufacturer.

    Chesk out: http://www.schindlerlifts.co.uk/

  18. Kilian Hekhuis said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 6:56 am

    @outeast: You may be wrong to whether a manufacturer cares for the number of people in an elevator. As elevator cabins are closed spaces, air refreshment is needed, or the cabin may run out of oxygen. The refresh capacity of a certain elevator type may be well limited to four average persons.

  19. Peter Howard said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 8:20 am

    If the capacity of the lift: "320 kg or 4 persons" means simply "320 kg" then we have a rather curious situation. Suppose I travel in the lift with four other persons, but the combined weight of the five of us is only 300 kg.

    If I am asked "Did you travel in the lift while its load exceeded its capacity: 320 kg or 4 persons?" the truthful reply is "No."

    If I am asked "Did you travel in the lift while its load exceeded 320 kg or 4 persons?" the truthful reply is "Yes."

  20. Marc A. Pelletier said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 11:30 am

    Personally, I would interpret the sign to mean that *neither* limit is to be exceeded (possibly for different reasons), and it would seem to me that this is the intended interpretation.

    Possibly, I'm influenced by the obvious interpretation of a sign reading "No food or beverages".

  21. Paul Wilkins said,

    April 25, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

    Steven Jones has it correct. The elevator is designed to transport 320 kg or 4 people.

    Bear with me, if I am delivering 250 kg of something, I need to split my delivery in two, as I weigh about 100 kg. Else I risk running afoul of the physical limitations of the engineering design. And falling to the bottom of the elevator shaft is not my idea of a good time.

    Second scenario, if I and 3 of my same sized friends cram into this elevator, I would expect it to do its job. Together we weigh 400 kg. If the elevator does not have a feature that tells us we are too heavy and it falls and someone gets injured, I believe it has failed and I have recourse in court.

    But, finally, if I and four of my friends with a total weight if 319 kg have a negative experience in this elevator, we have run afoul of the stated limits of the elevator and are taking fate into our own hands.

    Hence, 320 kg or 4 people. Because, really, how many times are four strangers in an elevator going to be able to judge whether or not they are complying with this sign?

  22. Alan Gunn said,

    April 26, 2008 @ 11:18 am

    I don't know how it's done in German, but if I were using "or" in this sense in English, I'd put a comma in front of it: "320kg, or 4 persons." Is that just me, or is this standard for this use of "or"?

  23. David Marjanović said,

    April 27, 2008 @ 5:19 pm

    In French and German, like in English, a space is standard in front of unit symbols: "320 kg". Not everyone knows this, though, so it's possible the signs really lack the space. (The absence of the comma is correct, though.)

    Speaking of space, most of the lifts I've seen have space for more people than the "limit", provided the people aren't so ehem sturdily built that the limit on their number actually corresponds to the weight limit, which I've always understood as the actual limit. I'm Austrian; all lifts in Austria, as far as I know, have such a sign.

    As elevator cabins are closed spaces, air refreshment is needed, or the cabin may run out of oxygen.

    That must be quite a skyscraper!

  24. Tal said,

    April 24, 2009 @ 7:40 pm

    In Israel it is simple – the standard elevator "warning" is in KGs only. If the person is not intelligent enough he should use the stairs :)

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