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A common definition of sticky is

Having the property of adhering or sticking to a surface; adhesive.

Is there any reason its not correct to call magnets sticky, even though they can be described as sticking to things?

The only counter point I can find is sticky is sometimes described as

coated with a adhesive substance

but this definition would also exclude things like sap and glue.

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    It would be a very stretched usage. Collins adds the caveat for sticky 'tending to stick to anything touched'. Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 21:14
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    This is why it helps to look at multiple dictionaries to get a better idea of how a word is used, as well as look at the examples they present. A short definition may easily be "wrong around the edges", not be an accurate guide in certain borderline cases. That's why a good dictionary gives multiple definitions. Looking at Merriam-Webster, most definitions are about viscous, gluey, claggy, moist, cloying, etc; none has much to do with magnets. Of course, you could use sticky with magnets for humorous or poetic effect merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sticky
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 21:38
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    It is not at all abnormal to say something like "I stuck that note to the refrigerator door with a magnet." "Stick/stuck/sticky" is not all that precisely defined.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 21:45
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    I would say that two aspects of their operation stop magnets being referred to as 'sticky'. Firstly they work by attraction between the magnet and the surface, object or particle which is the subject of the force so they operate at a distance: sticky substances only adhere on contact. Secondly the attractive force can become a repulsive force if two like poles are presented to each other: a sticky surface doesn't actively repel anything even if it doesn't stick to some substances.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 22:41
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    I've just had another thought. When an adhesive substance is pulled off the surface to which it adheres part of the adhesive is left behind, part of the surface pulls away with the adhesive or both. This applies even with adhesives which appear to come away cleanly like BluTack. Magnets come away completely cleanly.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 22:48

4 Answers 4

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I think magnets can most definitely be considered "sticky". Upon doing some research into the semantics surrounding "stickiness", most definitions do seem to be very loose.

Having the property of adhering or sticking to a surface; adhesive.

Based on this definition, I think it's more than acceptable to consider magnets to be "sticky". Magnets definitely "stick" to things!!!!

Regardless, what an interesting question!!! A beautiful combination of electromagnestism and semantics. The study of magnets is absolutely fascinating. They're so interesting. Thanks!

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This question, like many others that appear on this site, presupposes that words have sharply delineated meanings, and that it is always possible to determine, in a definite yes-or-no manner, whether something is covered by the meaning of a word. Most words of everyday English (unlike legal and scientific terminologies) are, however, not like that.

Magnets are not within the core of the meaning of sticky; they are not what a typical speaker of the language thinks of upon hearing the word. Most people would not spontaneously characterise magnets as sticky. On the other hand, if somebody insisted on saying that magnets are sticky, we would probably understand what is meant; we would find this person's choice of words eccentric, but not unintelligible. If the question were then posed whether this unusual use of sticky is literal or metaphorical, it is unlikely that there would be a consensus.

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  • "[Magnetic properties] are not within the core of the meaning of 'sticky' " is an assertion (and by the definition I accept demands the mooted broadened usage be metaphorical); it doesn't match the hedged 'If the question were then posed whether this unusual use of sticky is literal or metaphorical, it is unlikely that there would be a consensus.' Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 18:17
  • @EdwinAshworth, the core-penumbra distinction is logically independent of the literal-metaphorical distinction. Motorcars are in the core of the meaning of the word vehicle, while tricycles are in its penumbra, but there is nothing metaphorical about using the word for tricycles.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 18, 2021 at 20:42
  • If you're not using 'core' to mean 'prototypical' when modifying 'meaning', you're being infelicitous unless you add a stipulative definition. 'Magnetic' has prototypical senses that involve rather than invoke comparisons with magnets. And 'magnet' has prototypical sense along the lines of 'a body having the property of attracting iron'. Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 11:52
  • @EdwinAshworth, the question (and the answer) is not about the meaning (prototypical and otherwise) of magnet, but of sticky. The core (i.e. prototypical) sense of sticky involves something gooey; if one insists on using the word for something that has a propensity to stick to other things without being gooey, one is working on the margins (in the penumbra) of its meaning.
    – jsw29
    Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 15:45
  • And as I say, by the definition of 'metaphorical' i understand, metaphorical. Your answer licenses / warrants this comment. Commented Apr 19, 2021 at 16:02
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At most you might get away with using 'sticky' in a metaphorical way. It already is used in that way, for example in the old pop song "I'm stuck on you". The idea that you are an adhesive surface onto which I am 'stuck' is metaphorical. I can be 'stuck on' somebody in this sense even at a distance of hundreds of miles.

Magnetism is, of course, a weird kind of 'adhesive'. Two pieces of sticky paper will stick together even more strongly than sticky paper to something non-sticky. Two magnets are equally likely to repel as to attract each other. It depends on the poles.

But it's a free language: you can use a metaphor if you think it will be understood. Simply, I should advise 'scare' quotes when you describe a magnet as 'sticky'.

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No, as magnets are considered by definition to be "Fructating in nature coincidently to applied force."
granted, not all glues are sticky, but you catch my proverbial drift...

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    Please add a reputable source backing this claim. Commented Apr 17, 2021 at 21:12

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