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Today, I was reading an article on pharmaceutical companies making minute changes to a drug in order to extend the patent. In one instance, the company profiled did not actually change the content of the drug, just the outward appearance. This got me thinking, is there a word in the English language that means “to change without changing” or “a change so small that it’s not a change at all”? I thought about the word superficial, but that doesn’t seem to fit.

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Technically "quantum leap" would fit, as it is the smallest possible change. Though most ordinary people got the concept wrong and understand it as a big change ... –  starblue Oct 11 '11 at 15:00
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@starblue: isn't quantum leap defined in terms the minimum discrete unit that makes a difference, i.e. it could be a pretty big change, because changes smaller than than that do not change anything. At least, that's how I've thought about it. –  Macke Oct 11 '11 at 19:03
    
You can always say- they made some "MAJOR" changes to the drug. Just make sure you use your hands like this is.gd/HRkdZv –  Alec Smart Oct 14 '11 at 10:30
    
@starblue, the ordinary meaning is not getting the concept wrong. It just making metaphorical reference to the "discrete" aspect rather than to the "small" aspect. A large sudden change feels discrete -- like it skipped all the intermediate steps -- just like a quantum leap is discrete, skipping all the intermediate locations. –  Ben Lee Apr 6 '12 at 21:57
    
I think the practice by pharmaceutical companies is called evergreening, but I don't know a general term for changing without really changing. –  Andrew Grimm Jul 29 '12 at 0:12

16 Answers 16

up vote 89 down vote accepted

English doesn't get much more precise than this...

Infinitesimalimmeasurably or incalculably minute.

It gets a bit mind-boggling when infinitesimal amounts are involved in, for example, homeopathic remedies that are so diluted there's only a very low probability of even a single molecule of the original substance being present. Which to me means an amount so small it's not actually there.

EDIT: I can't resist pointing out this answer itself now embodies an (almost) infinitesimal change. It was recently amended (not by me) to add a space before the first word. But you don't see it because of how the ELU display works (I only twigged by looking at the edit source).

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52  
Maybe you insulted a homeopath. –  ghoppe Oct 11 '11 at 6:00
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The answer only containe homeopathic amounts of insult, logic says that should be worth a +1 ;) –  MSalters Oct 11 '11 at 13:18
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If you insult a homeopath, does he give one ten-billionth of a down vote? –  Malvolio Oct 11 '11 at 16:15
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@Malvolio Yes, and it's the most powerful down vote possible. –  Kaz Dragon Oct 11 '11 at 16:32
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@Malvolio one ten-billionth of an UP vote. Remember, like cures like. ;) –  sequoia mcdowell Oct 11 '11 at 17:07

I’m not aware of a single word that has that meaning, but you might try the following descriptions:

  • a cosmetic change (a change that only affects appearance)
  • a trivial change (a change that has no significant impact)
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Cosmetic certainly applies to the example of changing the appearance of a drug. –  Marthaª Oct 10 '11 at 21:46
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I use trivial for this all the time. –  jim Oct 10 '11 at 23:09

Imperceptible is very close although it can speak more to the perception of the viewer of the change more than the change itself.

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It could be a really big change after all but still imperceptible –  Juan Mendes Mar 15 at 8:10

A phrase I might use is a negligible change, which is often used in the Sciences to mean a change small enough to be ignored.

However, in the context of Science, a negligible change can be noticeable - it's just so small that it won't affect the system or experiment. Therefore, this might not be the word you're looking for.

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16  
I prefer this over infinitesimal. –  Chris Cudmore Oct 11 '11 at 15:24
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Congratulations on mortarboarding! And on your only answer, no less! –  John Y Oct 11 '11 at 22:07

How about an "inconsequential" change? eg: "a change inconsequential, except that that it allows them to extend their patent"

or, "technically inconsequential"? eg: "a technically inconsequential change, but one that allows them to extend their patent"

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Building on this answer, I would in this particular context go with "medically inconsequential." The implication is that the change does not benefit the health of patients, but is implemented solely for legal reasons. –  D Coetzee Aug 2 '12 at 7:40

I suggest quantum change. I know that in general discourse the term is used to mean a change of huge significance but, as far as I understand it, that betrays its scientific origin. I stand ready to be corrected by those who know more about these things than I do, but in physics, isn’t a quantum the smallest amount of anything that can exist?

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I would not got with that. Quantum change makes no actual statement about the significance of some change: if a single atom in a large amount of hot gas spontaneously changes its quantum state, that is indeed an imperceptible change (indeed, not really a change at all, since quantum thermodynamics states atoms must change their state occasionally). On the other hand, if you have some lifeform's DNA and change its state by means of nuclear radiation, it can have quite dramatic consequences. –  leftaroundabout Oct 11 '11 at 12:32
    
Quantum has the meaning that the change is a discrete jump rather than a movement along a continuum. It actually makes no distinction about the size of the change. While everything that happens at the particle physics level is small, quantum changes can actually be quit large in their own scale. –  Chris Cudmore Oct 11 '11 at 15:28
    
Thank you. My scientific education, I fear, is sadly lacking. –  Barrie England Oct 11 '11 at 19:33
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I think you are correct about a quantum. Physicists speak of things being quantized, meaning they are not truly a continuum but have some minimum quantity, which I think can be called a quantum. However, quantum change (as it is used) does not mean changing by a minimum quantity, it means the kinds of changes seen in quantum mechanics, which are much larger (at that tiny scale) than the changes we see at our scale, and involve crazy things like moving from point A to point B without covering the intervening distance, or vanishing, or turning into other particles spontaneously. –  psr Oct 12 '11 at 17:57

I have not found a good word or succinct phrase for this; I think de minimis is the best that I have come across. Sure it's Latin, but it's either in the lexicon of most educated persons or they could quickly discern the meaning upon hearing it or reading it.

I have seen this term used in written communication to express the concept in the OP, but only in legal opinions and legal scholarship--e.g., "de minimis infringement" refers to an activity that satisfies the technical strictures of infringement, but the level of the activity is so small that it would be practically absurd/unreasonable to punish that activity as infringement.

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I think this is precisely right. Certainly it's legal English, but patent technicalities are legal points. Incidentally, the origin is 'De minimis non curat lex' (the law does not care about trivialities): fits exactly. –  TimLymington Oct 11 '11 at 13:50
    
But in some cases there are no trivialities. Hence the concept of "zero tolerance". –  Mike Jones Oct 14 '11 at 23:46
    
In this particular case I think de minimis is a poor choice because it implies the change is too small to be respected under the law - when clearly, the change was implemented specifically in order to be substantial enough as to be recognisable under the law. –  D Coetzee Aug 2 '12 at 7:42

Depending on the context

  • insignificant (e.g. statistical)
  • negligible (e.g. a change that could be explained by measuring inaccuracy alone)
  • irrelevant (i. e. does not affect the outcome)
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I've always liked the use of the word "Homeopathic" to describe minute quantities.

"The cook was so stingy that he applied margarine to my toast in homeopathic quantities."

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+1 for using "homeopathic" properly. ;-) –  Macke Oct 11 '11 at 19:01
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Homeopathic means, essentially, to treat like with like. Its opposite, allopathic, means to treat with the opposite. The word has nothing to do with the dilution of the curatives, only the philosophical approach to treatment. –  tajmo Oct 11 '11 at 21:02
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@tajmo: Originally, yes. Now it have come to mean either infinitesimal, minuscule, negligible, imperceptible, indiscernible, inconsequential, insignificant, immaterial, immeasurable, inefficient, impotent or inactive. ;-) –  Zano Oct 12 '11 at 20:23
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You forgot "insane". –  Optimal Cynic Oct 14 '11 at 9:30
    
@zano, can you cite that? I've never seen or heard that parlance. Unless you mean those definitions the way some people might say "government" has come to mean some of those same things. –  tajmo Nov 4 '11 at 15:37

I think you're talking about a change that changes only the outward appearance of something. I like waiwai's cosmetic, but I think I would go for superficial as you mention in your question. I disagree that it is inappropriate.

Merriam-Webster:

a : concerned only with the obvious or apparent : shallow

b : seen on the surface : external

c : presenting only an appearance without substance or significance

(c) is particularly apt for the circumstance you describe.

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You might say that a change is indiscernible.

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"indiscernible" often simply means "too late to change when finally discernible" –  Mike Jones Oct 14 '11 at 23:47

The answers so far are great, but I'll add one more: miniscule.

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Depending on your level of prescriptivism, this is a misspelling of minuscule. –  John Y Oct 11 '11 at 22:02
    
But a miniscule/minuscule amount of poison can KILL. Would you tolerate even a miniscule/minuscule amount of strychnine in your coffee/tea? –  Mike Jones Oct 12 '11 at 0:17
    
@Mike We're not talking about poison. The other answers like "cosmetic" wouldn't even make sense in that context :P –  Matthew Read Oct 12 '11 at 0:20
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@John: Related: "Miniscule" vs. "minuscule" –  Daniel Oct 17 '11 at 0:55

To address the action of the change as opposed to the quantity (addressed by previous answers), I would submit the colloquialism "to tweak" as a candidate for indicating a minor or indiscernible change.

Also, from hacker jargon comes the term "frob", or "frobnicate": http://outpost9.com/reference/jargon/jargon_21.html#TAG697

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immaterial can describe a change that is not significant in the context. Changing something can be noticed but then be considered immaterial to the problem/discussion.

Merriam-Webster: 1: not consisting of matter
2: of no substantial consequence

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unremarkable?

I am not a native english speaker so I might get it wrong, but I sens a contradiction in the sentence

a change so small that it's not a change at all

Either it's a change or not. For what I understand, only in quantum mecanics things can and cannot be at the same time. See Schrödinger's cat

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Looking up "a distinction without a difference" would probably make it clearer. –  TimLymington Oct 14 '11 at 13:38

A change so small that it’s not a change at all is a nominal change.

X plus two minus two yields nominal results; no real change here but something did happen.


nom·i·nal /ˈnämən(ə)l/ adjective -Google

  1. (of a role or status) existing in name only.

  2. (of a quantity or dimension, especially of manufactured articles) stated or expressed but not necessarily corresponding exactly to the real value.

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