There are two different senses in which we use the word "attribute"; for example, I can describe someone as "blond", which is a hair color. We say "blond" is a characteristic or attribute, but it is clearly the characteristic or attribute with regards to the characteristic or attribute "hair color" - "blond" is not how they smell or how tall they are, it's one of a set of attributes that fall under the attribute "hair color".

I have called both "blond" and "hair color" with the same word, "attribute", here, and, as far as I know, all the popular synonyms of "attribute" really are synonyms - "characteristic", "trait", "property", etc.

Is there any way or term or expression to verbalize the difference between an attribute in the sense of what it is - in this case, a person really being blond - and an attribute in the sense of what "category" that attribute belongs to - in this case, blond being a hair color?

To put it another way, for the sentence "For the attribute "hair color", he has the attribute "blond".", I would like to find a different word for one or both of the uses of "attribute" here, so that the words used unambiguously convey that one is the actual attribute (blond), and the other is the "category of attributes" (hair color).

  • In software you might have attribute-value pairs where the attribute is color, the value blond. I don't think there's a practical, real-world ambiguity here so you're probably going to have to look at formal logic, computing, or some other special field with its own terms of art.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 22 at 7:04
  • 1
    The attribute "hair color" is a property. As mentioned by @StuartF, "blond" is the value.
    – Graffito
    Oct 22 at 9:37
  • 'Hair colour' is an attribute (of many people), as is 'blondness' (of a proper subset of the first set). One is a hypernymic usage, the other hyponymic. Polysemy with hypernymy is often encountered in English. Animals (= mammals in common parlance) are a subset of animals (as the scientific definition requires the word be used). @Graffito gives the technical terms needed (parameter / category ... may also be used), but people usually avoid using 'attribute' and go straight to 'hair colour: blonds, brunettes, ...'. Oct 22 at 13:40
  • The two senses are "category" versus "specific". It's similar to the way "dog" can refer to a whole species or a particular member of the species.
    – Barmar
    Oct 23 at 17:22


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.