In a recent court case in Darlington, a man was convicted of destroying a door with a machete. He was sentenced to some trifling inconvenience, but the magistrates were careful to order the destruction of the machete; clearly they have identified the real culprit, and have ensured no further offences will be possible.

The same thought processes were embedded in English law up to 1846 in the notion of the deodand, some object that caused a death and was therefore forfeit to the Crown.

The fellow who tripped over his shoelace and destroyed some crockery was quick to blame his shoelace; having just converted Ming vases worth £500,000 to fragments worth £diddly he was probably rather shocked and thinking in an instinctive way.

This thought process is sufficiently old and common to have a name. Does anyone know what it is? (I don't think animism quite covers it.)

  • 3
    Animism certainly doesn't cover deodand, though deodand didn't necessarily blame the object, so much as hold it to be cursed as an effect of the death, rather than the cause, and later to act as a sort of negligence fine. Animism could involve holding something actively to blame, but it's much wider than that. Not knowing of a word, I might well be tempted to stretch deodand into figurative service.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 21, 2013 at 13:02
  • 2
    Deodand is so clearly what you need that it would be worth attempting to revive the term (C S Forester related it to the Nuremberg Trials in one of the stories in The Nightmare). But the real question is; why did the door have a machete in the first place? Feb 21, 2013 at 18:29
  • @TimLymington Deodands are certainly cool. “Deodands are humanoids which look like handsome, muscular human men, but with "dead black lustreless skin and long slit eyes." They are strong, murderous, and carnivorous creatures, but can be killed with offensive spells, which they fear.”
    – tchrist
    Feb 21, 2013 at 21:44
  • The phenomenon reappears. Dec 26, 2016 at 10:04
  • 1
    The formal psychological term for this is 'ascribing agency'. There have been lots of experiments showing that humans and many animals will consider an object to be 'pruposeful' if it moves a certain way.
    – Mitch
    Mar 26, 2019 at 19:56

5 Answers 5


The pathetic fallacy is:

the treatment of inanimate objects as if they had human feelings, thought, or sensations

  • +1 for the link. I am grateful for the enlightenment. The Tennyson poem (Crossing the Bar) made me cry. :-) Feb 21, 2013 at 20:34

"Scapegoating" - though usually assigned to a person, can certainly be assigned to an inanimate object. The point is that the blame is passed onto someone/something other than the true perpetrator.

Definition of "scapegoat" from The Free Dictionary.com:

  1. One that is made to bear the blame of others.
  2. Bible - A live goat over whose head Aaron confessed all the sins of the children of Israel on the Day of Atonement. The goat, symbolically bearing their sins, was then sent into the wilderness.

tr.v. scape·goat·ed, scape·goat·ing, scape·goats To make a scapegoat of.


I think the closest one can get is anthropomorphism

the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal or object.

  • ...or personification.
    – Mitch
    Feb 21, 2013 at 21:42
  • I am guilty of such ... daily!!!
    – lbf
    Feb 22, 2018 at 16:34

The phrase "whipping [or lashing or flogging] the Hellespont" alludes to a classic instance of the behavior described in the OP's question. The Wikipedia entry on Xerxes summarizes the story:

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Xerxes's first attempt to bridge the Hellespont [as part of an attempted invasion of Greece] ended in failure when a storm destroyed the flax and papyrus cables of the bridges. In retaliation Xerxes ordered the Hellespont (the strait itself) whipped three hundred times and had fetters thrown into the water.

Wikipedia's Xerxes article includes an illustration (from 1909) depicting the punishment of the waterway.


Resistentialism, according to Wikipedia:

Resistentialism is a jocular theory to describe "seemingly spiteful behavior manifested by inanimate objects

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.