Tag Archives: semantics


A colleague today mentioned that her copyediting professor had said the Mazda “Zoom Zoom” slogan was incorrect because zoom implies upward motion, as with a plane or rocket.


I am not happy that someone who is teaching editing would insist on a false restriction such as this. Why do people zoom in on one specialized sense and take it as the whole picture?

Here is why that instructor thought this was a real restriction: in aircraft slang, as of 1917, to quote the Daily Mail (from the OED), “‘Zoom’..describes the action of an aeroplane which, while flying level, is hauled up abruptly and made to climb for a few moments at a dangerously sharp angle.”

So the instructor is right? No, of course not, for two reasons.

First, that is a specialized sense and not the original – the original sense, dating to 1892 at the latest, is, per OED, “To make a continuous low-pitched humming or buzzing sound; to travel or move (as if) with a ‘zooming’ sound; to move at speed, to hurry. Also loosely, to go hastily.”

And second, what matters is not how the word was used in 1917 or 1892; what matters is how the word has come to be used and generally accepted in the most recent decades. Usage determines meaning, and current usage – like much non-specialist usage for the past century – allows zoom to refer to speed more generally, as in the original definition, and certainly to automotive speed.

But oh, oh, oh, some people just have to, have to, have to come up with restrictions on language. They don’t want to see the big picture. In the field of meanings they look and discover an “original” sense or see some “technical” meaning, zoom in on that, and decide that that must be the true sense and all the others are wrong. The etymological fallacy runs rampant. Conversational trump cards. Learn a new rule, feel more superior – or anyway learn a new rule and have new mental furniture to structure your existence. (Many, perhaps most, people actually love rules and restrictions, even if they don’t always adhere to them. As Laurie Anderson sings, “Freedom is a scary thing. Not many people really want it.”)

But isn’t the specialized sense the more accurate sense? They’re specialists, after all!

No, that doesn’t make it more accurate. That makes it more of an exception. Look, in medical speech, indicated means ‘considered the appropriate treatment’ – as in “selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors are indicated in clinical depression,” which means “drugs such as Prozac are considered appropriate treatment for depression.” But in everyday speech, that’s not what we mean by indicated, and you’re not required to be talking of berrytherapy if you say “He indicated the berries on the table.” So with technical terms generally. This includes biological classifications. The botanical class called berries includes bananas, but in ordinary life bananas are not berries.

I’m put in mind of a guy I knew in university who said that Calgary wasn’t a city because it didn’t have a cathedral. He based that on the idea that in medieval times a city was a city if it had a cathedral. He was, of course, wrong for several reasons: Calgary has a cathedral; we are not in medieval times; the medieval definition of a city that he was calling forth was not the original definition nor in any way a reliable definition, and it certainly is not the current definition. In short, he needed to zoom out. And get with the times and the facts, too.

And then there’s the fellow – a former English teacher, yet – who disputed the semiotic use of the word icon to refer to something that signified by resemblance. An icon, he declared, is an Orthodox religious image, and any other use is an abuse! Ah, dear, dear, dear. The word icon comes from Greek for ‘image’, so if you want to talk about commandeering a word for a specialized sense, it would be the Orthodox usage that does so…

Zoom is a perfectly usable (even if currently somewhat commandeered by Mazda) word in relation to speed, especially engine-driven speed, and it has a nice taste to it. We can ask ourselves why “zoom” specifically. There are similar sound words, too, like va-va-voom and the vroom vroom of an engine. The sound a piston engine makes (and, more particularly, made a century ago) seems best matched with a voiced fricative to start with, but the depth of the roar can call forth the high mid-back vowel [u], and the sustain and echo of it can be represented by [m]. Compare zip – much quicker and less substantial. Compare it with other sounds such as “shing” – that would be a sword being unsheathed, not an engine, no? Perhaps “brrrr”? No, that could be an engine, but one that’s just holding steady. You really do get a sense of something moving rapidly past and into the distance with “zoom.” Even the movement of your mouth, with the tongue moving from front to back while the lips purse and then close, reinforces this.

Oh, and why do we “zoom in” and “zoom out”? There’s that rapid motion again. When camera lenses capable of quickly and smoothly changing focal length came in, the effect of the focal length shift from the viewer’s perspective was experienced – as it still is – as being like rapid motion towards or away from the subject. As zooming towards or away from the subject – into or out of the frame. So there’s another one for the rapid motion sense. Oh, and that’s a technical sense, too. It’s also been around for more than 60 years. So there. Now zoom out again.

An Appreciation of English: A language in motion

This is the text of a presentation I made at the Editors’ Association of Canada Conference in Vancouver, June 10, 2006. It came with a handout, “A brief history of English,” which is available as a PDF. It traces the history and development of the English language and the nature and function of language change.
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