Is there a name for the rhetorical practice of using a generic term to mean a specific thing? For example, a particular programming language uses the term "algorithm," which is a very broad term that, generally speaking, could mean a lot of things, to mean "combinator," which is a very narrow particular kind of function, namely one that takes other functions as arguments. Presumably, the authors of that programming language chose "algorithm" because it's a familiar word, instead of "combinator," which almost no-one outside of a certain specialty would recognize. The fact is, however, that they risk greater confusion by conflating the general with the specific. When reading their materials, as long as one realizes that, in context, they're using the general to mean the specific, you'll be fine. But you really can't read snippets out of context because the word "algorithm" will evoke too many possibilities.

I wonder whether there is one of those fabulous Greek names for this rhetorical practice of using a too-broad, more familiar term to mean a more-narrow, less-familiar term in context?

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    As Mark Twain said in "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses", In addition to these large rules, there are some little ones. These require that the author shall: ... 13. Use the right word, not its second cousin. The Greeks may well have had a word for this, or 16 for different varieties of error that only pertained to Greek poetry; you never know when dealing with archaic science. Sep 6, 2015 at 14:46
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    There's a term for the terminology used in this way (though not with the rhetorical slant). As given in this 'Less Wrong' article by I SParrish: Inflationary terms! You see them everywhere. And for those who actually know and care about the subject matter they can be very frustrating. These terms are notorious for being used in contexts where: They are only loosely applicable at best. There exists a better word that is more specific. The topic has a far bias.... Sep 6, 2015 at 15:33
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    The problem is not that these words are meaningless in their original form, nor that you shouldn't ever use them. The problem is that they often get used in stupid ways that make them much less meaningful. By that I mean, less useful for keeping a focus on the topic and understanding what the person is really talking about. Sep 6, 2015 at 15:33
  • What?? Programmers misuse words??? I'm shocked!! (I wonder if the term you're searching for isn't "illiterate"?)
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 6, 2015 at 21:59

2 Answers 2


Synecdoche most often refers to using the name of a part to refer to the whole, or the name of one species to refer to the whole genus, but it can also mean using the name of the genus to refer to the species. The above-linked page on Silva Rhetoricae offers the following example of that sort of synecdoche:

“He shall think differently,” the musketeer threatened, “when he feels the point of my steel.”

A sword, the species, is represented by referring to its genus, “steel”

  • No; OP says that this particular practice is a misuse, whereas synechdoche is evocative and lauded rather than obfuscating and deplored. Sep 8, 2021 at 15:11
  • @EdwinAshworth: Does that go for all rhetorical figures? Their names are only applicable to laudable instances? This is a novel doctrine indeed. I wonder just how it relates to my suspicion that applying nearly any of those "fabulous Greek names" to a figure is similar to saying "I meant to do that" after a pratfall. Sep 9, 2021 at 16:45
  • (1) If 'synecdoche' is the answer, this question should be CV-d as a multi-dupe (eg What's the name of this literary device?). (2) However, here, OP stresses too broad, which isn't even connoted by 'synecdoche'. // Wikipedia has: Figure of speech 'A figure of speech or rhetorical figure is a word or phrase that entails an intentional deviation from ordinary language use in order to produce a rhetorical effect.' And 'synecdoche' Sep 9, 2021 at 18:04
  • is defined as being a figure of speech. Sep 9, 2021 at 18:09
  • I have not found any dictionary that follows Wikipedia quite so far into the weeds of intentionality in defining "figure of speech." Nor am I persuaded that an illiterate cowpoke who refers to 100 cows as "100 head" (because his mates talk thus) either harbors ambitions towards eloquence or fails of synecdoche. Sep 10, 2021 at 13:11

Context almost always impacts the meaning of a word. You appear to be describing jargon.

jargon - the language, especially the vocabulary, peculiar to a particular trade, profession, or groupG

jargon - special words or expressions that are used by a particular profession or group and are difficult for others to understandD

Jargon, outside of it's context is very difficult to understand precisely because the meanings of the words are different. However, this effect isn't only seen in professions. Outside a professional context this is called slang.

A disconnect with your description is that these could also be used to describe completely new words and not simply old ones being given new meanings.

For example, in the jargon of the Java programming language the word interface doesn't merely describe the interaction between two communicating things. It's also a kind of type that defines this interaction. This last is not true of all programming languages. This is a narrower meaning that would be understood when the word is used in the context of java.

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