Is there a word for describing the loss of fidelity or quality by repeated copying. I'm thinking of a xerox of a xerox, or a copy of a copy, or of the phenomena that happens when playing the game of telephone, where the original spoken phrase is distorted after being passed around a group of people.

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    I think Star Trek TNG and possibly other sci-fi stuff used the term "replicative fade" in relation to repetitive cloning, but the phrase draws a blank on ngrams. Commented Dec 11, 2021 at 14:11
  • I've heard this called mimeograph effect however Google provides no sources. I am also reminded of the movie Multiplicity where there is a copy-of-copy clone who is, well, comic relief. Certainly this phenomenon is well understood, so what's the name for it?
    – stevesliva
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 3:25
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    @stevesliva And all the people born in recent years are scratching their heads wondering if you made up the word "mimeograph". Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 6:57
  • @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket And they're probably mispronouncing it with 3 syllables instead of 4, too.
    – shoover
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 21:54
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    @RockPaperLz-MaskitorCasket yeah, I'm old. My guess would be "mimeograph" was used because the quality of reproduction was lower than with "xerox."
    – stevesliva
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 4:02

4 Answers 4


When you make copies of copies, the quality will progressively degrade. This degradation is known as generation loss.

degrade (v.)

To lower to an inferior or less effective level

Degrade the image quality m-w

Lower the quality of; cause to deteriorate.

Repeaters clean up and amplify the degraded signal. Lexico

generation loss (n.)

Generation loss is the loss of quality between subsequent copies or transcodes of data. Anything that reduces the quality of the representation when copying, and would cause further reduction in quality on making a copy of the copy, can be considered a form of generation loss. File size increases are a common result of generation loss, as the introduction of artifacts may actually increase the entropy of the data through each generation.
Successive generations of photocopies result in image distortion and degradation. Wiki

In the past, this always involved combining images from two or more pieces of film onto one. However, each time you copy an image, its quality degrades, much like making a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. Ron Miller; Digital Art

Furthermore, photocopies degrade in quality over generations. Gary Marchionini; Information Seeking in Electronic Environments

Another factor that should be taken into consideration is "generation." Photocopies do lose a certain amount of detail. In a first generation photocopy this loss of detail might amount to little more than an annoyance, but by the third or fourth generation copy the loss of detail might already preclude an examination. Jay Levinson; Questioned Documents

(Think of making a photocopy of a photocopy and you'll immediately understand generation loss.) C. Hausman and P. Palombo; Modern Video Production

The children's game of Telephone is a classic example of how messages degrade in an analog chain of communication. Diana Saco; Cybering Democracy

As anyone who has played the children's game “telephone" will attest, information will degrade over time, losing order and gaining entropy. David Toomey; The New Time Travelers

The mentor system allowed mistakes to accumulate and be passed on so that the quality of medical practice was degraded through a process akin to Chinese whispers. Charles Buck; Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine

(No telephones back then, and where better to whisper in Chinese?)

Distortion is a related term. For images, it often refers to a twisting (think torque) or lack of proportionality:

distortion (n.)

1 The act of twisting or altering something out of its true, natural, or original state: the act of distorting

a distortion of the facts

2 the quality or state of being distorted: a product of distorting: such as

a. physics: a lack of proportionality in an image resulting from defects in the optical system

an image free of distortion

b. falsified reproduction of an audio or video signal (see SIGNAL entry 1 sense 4b) caused by change in the wave form of the original signal m-w

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    Seems like a lot of clutter here? In general, isn't it fine to write only the answer (generation loss) and then only its definition (and here only to show it's a common term)? Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 6:00
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    @OwenReynolds I don't see how it's a bad thing to add more explanation/context. Plus they write the answer in the first sentence... if you really just want the name of the phrase, you can stop reading at the first sentence. But obviously having a lot of example sentences clarifies the meaning in the way that no amount of definition can.
    – somebody
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 6:41
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    @OwenReynolds A definition alone often doesn't provide nuances in how an answer is used. I try to find example that do this while also confirming or expounding on the definition (not always possible). In my short time at ELU, I've found such answers garner more upvotes. // I think degrade/degradation is also an answer and happens to go hand-in-hand with generation loss. You would probably say to a co-worker "If we make a copy of this copy, the image will probably degrade" rather than "...will suffer generation loss." If a moderator tells me I'm off base, I'll change how I answer.
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 12:11
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    xkcd seems to agree with "degrade". Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 15:32
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    @EricDuminil That has "first generation" as well :-)
    – DjinTonic
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 15:35

Corruption can occur as something is copied, e.g.

Even the best of scribes could easily succumb to any of these errors by accident, corrupting their manuscript without knowing...


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    note however that corruption usually implies that the data becomes essentially completely unusable. for images i feel like it normally implies some (not necessarily all) of the image being completely unrecognizable
    – somebody
    Commented Dec 12, 2021 at 6:44
  • @somebody That's often true for people who are familiar with the term from its use with digital technology. Outside of digital technology, the definition of "corruption" is usually more similar to "alteration". Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 7:01
  • That's talking about actual words getting changed, added, or removed. I suppose one could argue its a similar concept, in that the original meaning is getting "fuzzier", but I can't help but think there's a better cognitive match out there.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 22:09
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    The question mentions the game of telephone, which involves words getting changed.
    – tgdavies
    Commented Dec 14, 2021 at 1:22

Replicative Fading is used in biology, particularly in cloning.

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    Commented Dec 13, 2021 at 14:54


From Jean Baudrillard

Simulacra and Simulation (French: Simulacres et Simulation) is a 1981 philosophical treatise by the philosopher and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard, in which the author seeks to examine the relationships between reality, symbols, and society, in particular the significations and symbolism of culture and media involved in constructing an understanding of shared existence.


  • Perhaps you could add some material that explains why you think this addresses the OP's question?
    – user888379
    Commented Jun 22, 2023 at 18:09

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