Is there a name for "definitional drift," meaning a word we've used to define something in the past, but the object of definition has changed over time, yet we keep using the same word?

For example, "phone." Back in the 80s, we had phones that were connected to walls with cords. Phones were...well, phones.

Now, we call the device we carry a "phone," even though it's barely a phone. It's primarily designed to a million things other than make phone calls, and if we list the things we do it by frequency, making or taking a phone call would likely be near the bottom of the list.

This is clearly a thing that happens. Is there a name for it? Can you think of other classic examples of it?

Edit: another example is when we record video on our phone (ha!), we often say we "taped it," or we "have it on tape." But magnetic tape has nothing to do with it anymore.

  • I don't think there is specifically. It's one form of generalisation. It is part of the context in which a retronym gets coined, but I don't know a word for it in that context
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 14:20
  • Obsolete is used often to mean this.
    – moonstar
    Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 15:40
  • And (unless pre-set) we stil 'dial' someone's (phone) number. Commented Jan 6, 2019 at 23:37
  • 1
    Your car's dashboard has an interesting history. So does the term computer
    – Phil Sweet
    Commented Jan 7, 2019 at 0:21
  • "Dialing" or "Speed Dial", even though phones no longer even have dials. "Hanging up on someone" even though that no longer makes any sense.
    – Ocean
    Commented Feb 18, 2022 at 11:02

1 Answer 1


It's a form of semantic drift.

Semantic change (also semantic shift, semantic progression, semantic development, or semantic drift) is the evolution of word usage—usually to the point that the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage. - wikipedia

In Blank's typology, the semantic drift of phone, for example, looks like it's based on

Metonymy: Change based on contiguity between concepts, e.g., horn "animal horn" → "musical instrument". - ibid

The meaning of the word "phone" has changed because each stage of the development from voice-call phones to smart phones has retained enough similarity to the previous stage for the name to be broadly recognisable and associated with the new device.

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