THE BLOG

People and Things With Too Many Names

27/03/2014 10:34 GMT | Updated 21/05/2014 10:59 BST

If you're young or workshy enough to follow us on Twitter (you'll find us @TheWriter, kids), you might have seen us debating what you call the thing that comes and takes the rubbish (or trash) away. Yes, it's The Great Bin Lorry/Rubbish Wagon/Refuse Vehicle Debate.

This is subtly different from The Remote Control Problem. Everyone knows a remote control is 'officially' called a remote control. It's just that no-one does (not in the UK anyway); other than in extreme circumstances (like if you've lost yours and you ring up the company to get a new one) we plump for clicker, doofer, doodah, and so on.

But the Bin Lorry Debate is different. No-one seems to know what the bin lorry is really called. I even heard a man on the radio who's written a book all about rubbish, and he called it three different things in the space of a ten-minute interview.

In linguistics it's called variation: where speakers have a choice of different words (or even sounds) for the same thing, even when they're talking to someone with exactly the same background, from the same region, of the same age and so on.

Here's another. Memory stick? Flash drive? USB? Nobody knows. (Except that it's subtly different to a dongle.) When one of our clients asked us if she could borrow a 'zip drive' the other day, we looked blank for a while, traded a few alternatives and finally decided we were in fact talking about the same thing.

Of course it doesn't really matter whether you call it a zip drive or a memory stick. That kind of variation is interesting to a language geek like me, but not that important to most of us. Unlike grandmothers.

Grandmother is the neutral term. But again, not many people say it in everyday conversation (unless they were sent off to prep school at a very early age). On the other hand, the words gran, granny, nan, nanna, grandma and so on are anything but neutral.

Grandma's my word (mine were Grandma Taylor and Grandma Boardman if I needed to specify), the same word all my Lancashire family would pick. If anyone ever asked me about my gran, it often took me a minute to compute who they might even mean. In fact if I told you about my grandma, and then you later referred to my gran, I'd be positively insulted. It feels to me as big a faux pas as getting someone's child's name wrong; commit either crime and it seems like you just haven't been listening at all.

Yet, when the boot's on the other foot, I struggle to even remember their 'grandmother' word, because mine is so ingrained.

And because the grandmother word we choose is so significant to us, it doesn't seem like one of the words will win out anytime soon (which is what can happen with other sorts of variation). So be careful you get mine right.