Giles Turnbull has a funny Morning News piece about “a unique quirk of language: Lego nomenclature”:

Every family, it seems, has its own set of words for describing particular Lego pieces. No one uses the official names. “Dad, please could you pass me that Brick 2×2?” No. In our house, it’ll always be: “Dad, please could you pass me that four-er?”
And I’ll pass it, because I know exactly which piece he means. Lego nomenclature is essential for family Lego building. …
Then, when another seven-year-old came round for tea after school one day, I overheard the two of them, busy in the spaceship construction yard that used to be our living room, get into a linguistic thicket.
“Can you see any clippy bits?” my son asked his friend. The friend was flummoxed. “Do you mean handy bits?” he asked, pointing.
“Yes,” replied my boy. “Clippy bits.”
Of course! This language of Lego isn’t just something our family has invented; every Lego-building family must have its own vocabulary. And the words they use (mostly invented by the children, not the adults) are likely to be different every time. But how different? And what sort of words?

So he takes a mini-survey (“So that’s how we discovered that a ‘cylinder one-er’ can also be known as ‘Coke bottles’ or a ‘golden wiper'”) and provides a chart of the results. It’s fun, and as Geoff Pullum says in his Log post (where I found the link), “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.”


  1. Peripherally related, my 20 year old nephew rented his 50 lbs. of legos to his cousin for ten years for his five year old second cousin (my grandnephew) to play with. But he wants them back when he has a kid.

  2. Our family-word for the television controller is doofer. I assumed that everyone called it a doofer. But my closest friend calls it a zapper and another friend calls it a zinger, and these are the words their respective families use. I also have a friend who routinely calls it Fred.

  3. Ha! Lego languages! In our house, growing up, a Lego was called an “X-headed blip” based on the number of dots on the top. “Hand me a four-headed blip,” we’d say. I’d never thought about it being unique to us but of course as soon as one does think about it, it’s obvious. And it’s true about kids making up names for things they don’t have terms for. I remember once deciding (as a very small child) that the term for the rind you pull off a slice of baloney was “the david.” I know, I know; but it made perfect sense at the time.

  4. Our family-word for the television controller is doofer.
    We call it the troll.

  5. “Doofer”, in my family (I was born in South-East London in 1947) could apply to any object for which one had temporarily forgotten the name (or, to be honest, for any object for which “doofer” was simply more convenient than the real name). The impassioned plea “Where’s the doofer ?!” thus relied more on pragmatics than is perhaps normal in everyday conversation.

  6. You call the beeper a doofer? You doofer!

  7. I have no recollection of having had names for Lego pieces.
    But 1) I remember very little, 2) I largely played with it on my own, so I don’t think I ever really had to ask anyone for a piece.

  8. Throbert McGee says


    I remember once deciding (as a very small child) that the term for the rind you pull off a slice of baloney was “the david.”

    Heh-heh… if an adult used that term for a sausage rind, I’d take it to be an obscure joking reference to the fact that Michelangelo’s David is uncircumcised! But that’s a bit too sophisticated for a child.

  9. Ageist. Xiao Xiaolongnu was extremely sophisticated. But she grew increasingly more unsophisticated by the year, until she ended up as you see her now.

  10. Throbert McGee says

    Well, I stand corrected. But speaking of childish humor, did anyone see the most recent episode of South Park, which was called “The F-word”?
    The “f-word” in question is fag(got), in the American sense, and during the course of the episode, the High Council of Dictionary Editors agreed to redefine “fag(got)” to mean “someone who rides an unnecessarily loud and annoying Harley motorcycle.”
    The redefinition was the kids’ idea — since in their usage, fag has already been almost completely decoupled from gay and homosexual. (When the town’s mayor treats “fag” as synonymous with “homosexual,” the kids immediately rebuke her: “That’s mean, Mayor! Not all gay people are fags, and not all fags are gay!”)
    And after seeing this idea endorsed by all of the homosexuals in South Park (including Big Gay Al and Mr. Slave), the rest of the adults in town agree, so they press the Dictionary Editors to change the word’s meaning.
    You can see the episode as being partly a literal attack on people who ride excessively loud motorcycles as macho status symbols, and also perhaps as a metaphorical attack on a small subgroup of in-your-face gay activists who haven’t figured out the difference between being “openly gay” and being an attention-whore.
    But of more direct interest here on Language Hat is how the episode plays around with the descriptivist v. prescriptivist roles of lexicographers.
    Anyway, the ep is watchable online at the South Park website, but only until Wednesday — after that, it goes offline for one month, per contractual obligations with Comedy Central.

  11. Surely healthy children should call lego bits by cheerful names like “cats’coffins”, “dead frogs’ armpits”, and such? Is lego for wimps?

  12. jeff del col says

    The only names I ever had for lego pieces were random expletives used whenever I stepped on one barefooted.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Ah, fond memories. Good to see nominalization of numbers with -er is still alive in English, too. In Austria it’s even used for the marks you get in school.

    Michelangelo’s David is uncircumcised!

    I never noticed.

    Surely healthy children should call lego bits by cheerful names like “cats’coffins”, “dead frogs’ armpits”, and such?

    Are you a poet or something?

  14. “Twelver”, “sevener” and “fiver” (according to the imams followed by the various groups) are technical terms in English-language Shi’a studies. The terminology sounds vaguely demeaning and I wonder whether it was touched on in Said’s book.

  15. The terminology sounds vaguely demeaning
    That’s an odd reaction. The terms are directly translated from Arabic, and I doubt they sound demeaning to Muslims.

  16. Michaelangelo’s David is pretty hard to see in detail, even the toes are above eye level:

  17. Maybe Sunni Muslims?

  18. It reminds me of the Chinese designation of Muslims and Jews respectively as “tendon-eaters” and “non-tendon-eaters”, based on a difference between kosher and halal.
    To my knowledge very few Chinese in history, out of the billions that there have been, have ever cared enough to try to understand the differences between Sunnis, Shi’as, Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox, and Mormons, or the similarities either. And I applaud the Chinese for this!
    They understood the Manichaeans as “some kind of Buddhist sort of like Christians”, and during the era when there was Nestorians in China, they probably provided some kind of local reference point for all those other weird religions.

  19. “Tendon-non-eaters”?

  20. Nuneaton is the largest town in the Borough of Nuneaton and Bedworth.

  21. Nuneaton
    An imagined dialogue between sensitive host and religiously diet-restricted guest:
    SH: Oh no, I shouldn’t have you served you tendons!
    RDG: None eaten.
    SH: I fear that I gave offense?
    RDG: None taken.
    (Then there should be something about “none intend(on)ed” …)

  22. Maybe the Jews were the tendon-eaters, though. It’s probably safest to leave the tendons out, unless the tendon-eaters are actually required to eat tendons.

  23. David Marjanović says

    have ever cared enough to try to understand the differences between

    …most or all of those and Pure Land Buddhism.

    the era when there was Nestorians in China

    …ended in a period of persecution of Buddhism.

  24. jeff del col says

    I tender my opinion that this thread has become tendentious.

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