In at least the ELU hyperlocal environment, the claim that 'white noise' has only one meaning seems to be mostly unchallenged.

For example, as commentary on a recent question (now on hold) titled "White Noises...", where "white noises" was used with a common colloquial sense (as well as one or more potential jocular senses), this comment appeared (emphasis mine):

The title of this question is misleading. The term white noise is taken: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_noise.

Later, another comment to the same effect showed up (emphasis mine):

White noise has a specific meaning.

The claims flabbergasted me. The idea that any phrase in common use in English could have only one meaning seems obviously contrary to fact. Equally absurd was the claim that a term (in common use etc.) could be "taken" and thereafter reject all subsequent changes and development of meaning.

In this case, a simple lookup in OED (paywalled), a historical dictionary which is not renowned for up-to-the-minute lexicography, reveals that 'white noise' has at least two major senses.

The first sense recorded in OED, shown in an entry updated a mere 4 years ago, is the well-known technical sense:

1. Noise that has effectively equal energy intensities at all frequencies etc.

The second sense (op. cit.), attested as recently as 2014, gives the broader but (to me) common colloquial denotation:

2. A continuously delivered mass of information, facts, etc., in which detail is obscured.

In addition to those two senses, the second of which applies to my use of the term in the question title, I speculate on the basis of my "intelligence guided by my experience" (Rex Stout) that 'white noise' has acquired more figurative senses even than that given as sense 2 by OED, which derives from the original technical term (OED sense 1).

Can anyone provide solid evidence corroborating my speculation that 'white noise' presently enjoys common, more figurative use than what is shown as OED sense 2?

  • It sounds like you believe white noise has an additional meaning, but you refuse to state what that meaning is. That doesn't seem in accordance with the rules of this Stack Exchange.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Feb 11, 2021 at 15:39
  • I don't have the solid evidence you asked for, but do you even need it? As you've said, the idea that a term could be "taken" and never have any figurative meanings is just ridiculous. I'm certain I've heard the term "white noise" used figuratively more often than in the scientific sense.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Oct 9, 2021 at 16:07
  • 'White noise' certainly has broadened senses: M-W picks up on the 'the white noise of policy and politics in America — Joseph Nocera' sense. But the correct procedure is to add criticism at the original question. It needs removing (or at least the intensity greatly reducing) from this question. '... [S]eems to be mostly unchallenged' when 'White noise has a specific meaning' can be short if imprecise for '... a specific primary sense' and the comment is hidden away in a closed thread is mischievous. // Note that 'white noise' begins life as a metaphor. Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 16:31
  • "White noise has a specific meaning." The claims flabbergasted me.* Your flabber is too easily gasted. You can see the two meanings as different but, as both have the same root, you can see them as one: Politicians do give off noise that has effectively equal energy intensities at all frequencies.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Feb 6, 2022 at 17:48

2 Answers 2


DanBron, from comments:

IME (in my experience), it means "innocuous background noise", where "noise" can be figurative, like "office politics which are designed to distract you from the task at hand".

I used OneLook to check about 20 different dictionaries, and the only one which supported [a supplementary, that is, non-technical or figurative use] was Merriam-Webster. In fact, it's the only one with any definition supplementary to the OED ones you quote. Here's what it has to say:

meaningless or distracting commotion, hubbub, or chatter
// "the white noise of policy and politics in America"
— Joseph Nocera.

I agree with the "everpresent, unavoidable" character it describes, and should have noted it in my original comment.

[Further: ] From "Don DeLillo's 'White Noise' & the 2016 Election", by Ben Adams. At Literary Arts: Delve Readers Seminars.

He has discussed many times the world leaning on the precipice of disaster, on more regime away from destruction. In White Noise it is the literal "noise" of the television buzzing in the background of every home — empty conversation, the possible noise of death, like an electrical transformer, along with the arrival of a physical toxic cloud.

From White Noise, by Don DeLillo:

...it is both the background noise that constantly bombards us and a way for us to avoid that bombardment...Thus the term "white noise" can be used in either a positive or a pejorative sense, depending on whether it refers to an unremitting noise one is trying to escape or to the sound introduced as escape....

Finally, googling "white noise" racism is instructive. One apparently somewhat-common metaphorical usage of the term is "the discourse among white persons about race relations".

  • 2
    White noise is only "innocuous" when it's level falls below the threshold where interference will occur. It can totally obscure the "signal" and still be "white noise". In fact, white noise can be more difficult to filter out than other forms with particular spectral characteristics.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 3:09
  • @HotLicks, a number of my friends use machine-generated "white noise" to mask war-injury related tinnitus. Is that innocuous, or does it go beyond innocuous?
    – JEL
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 3:12
  • Obviously, "innocuous" depends on the level required to "mask" tinnitus. The tinnitus occurs in specific frequency bands, and is annoying not because it's loud but because the brain naturally "listens" to single-frequency "tones" (even relatively weak ones), (mis)interpreting them meaningful "signals" when they're not. The brain does an excellent job of ignoring white noise, though.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 3:19
  • @HotLicks, oh...I would describe the "level" of white noise they use as therapeutic, not just innocuous, but beneficial.
    – JEL
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 3:24
  • 1
    Arsenic can be therapeutic.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 12:53
  1. Noise that has effectively equal energy intensities at all frequencies etc.

"Noise" is energy with a random rhythm. "Frequencies", of course, refers to positions on a "spectrum". If the strength ("energy intensity") is equal across a spectrum that means that the noise is coming in short and long and in-between bursts, as a steady flow.

One version of a spectrum:

enter image description here

  1. A continuously delivered mass of information, facts, etc., in which detail is obscured.

The implication is that the information is not focused on, say, the right or the left, but is spread across at least some portion of the political spectrum. It comes in a steady flow, and the detail is "obscured".

IOW, definition #2 is a quite literal "figurativation" of definition #1.

Of course, as in any discussion involving political concepts, the definition is apt to be stretched a bit (especially when using the "white noise" term to imply malfeasance of your opponent). But taking this all into consideration, the two definitions are about as identical as could be hoped.

In the case of your problematic title, I do not see how it at all refers to "noise" (random or obscured information), nor how the apparent subject of your question somehow references a "continuous mass" of information.

  • 2
    I've no idea what a "literal 'figurativation'" is. Can you clarify?
    – JEL
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 3:16
  • 1
    Most of the time I've seen white noise used in the second sense, "the entire political spectrum" was far too narrow of a term to call it. Politics has nothing to do with white noise except when a political party decides to use it as a tool.
    – Ed Grimm
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 4:27
  • 1
    @EdGrimm -- But the distinguishing characteristic of "white noise" vs simply "noise" is that the former is of about equal intensity across the "spectrum". This is why the metaphor was initially chosen, I suspect. (Consider that many news people are in close proximity to radio/TV technicians.) Granted, with the advent of blogs and such, one can "filter" the noise in such a way that it is no longer "white", but in this case the metaphor no longer applies. Attempting to use the term in such a case is, alas, just adding noise to the English language.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 12:40
  • 1
    @HotLicks I'm saying the "political spectrum" is too narrow to describe it, because in addition to covering all of the political spectrum, there's many additional elements that defy such categorization. It feels to me like saying "the entire political spectrum" is like saying "white is composed of all of the shades of blue". It's more than that.
    – Ed Grimm
    Commented Mar 3, 2019 at 21:20
  • 1
    You were the one that drug politics into it.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Mar 4, 2019 at 12:51

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