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A discussion of machinery today set me wondering why it is called "plant"? Is there some metaphor I am missing out on?

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    Just checked the OED 3. Not much help there as to its actual origins, just early references to it being used, mostly in quotes like 'plant', back to 1789. You'll be pleased to know, though, that it also confused one "Mrs. Piozzi" in 1789, though :-) "The ground was destined to the purposes of extensive commerce, but the appellation of a plant gave me much disturbance, from my inability to fathom the meaning." Jan 21, 2011 at 12:47
  • Thank you for your answers, chaps. So the metaphor is, it is planted in the ground, presumably in the hope it will bear fruit sometime. Jan 22, 2011 at 8:24
  • I've never heard heavy machinery called a "plant" in the US. The term is used for a "factory" or other stationary facility for producing stuff, but I've never heard it used for, eg, an "earth mover". However, the term "power plant" is used to refer to the engine of a car/truck/bulldozer/etc, and occasionally "plant" may be used as a shortened version of "power plant".
    – Hot Licks
    Nov 1, 2015 at 22:04

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My dictionary suggests:

ORIGIN Old English plante [seedling,] plantian (verb), from Latin planta ‘sprout, cutting’ (later influenced by French plante) and plantare ‘plant, fix in a place.’

My suggestion: It's simply a very big thing which can hardly be moved and hence behaves like a plant, something fixed in place; likely also closely related to the meaning of the verb, "to place or fix in a specific position."

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  • Except all the mobile civil engineering machinery used to eg. make a road (all the excavators bulldozers, graders, pavers etc) is called plant.
    – mgb
    Sep 16, 2012 at 6:16
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I suspect it could also stem from the fact that another word for a factory is a plant (e.g. a power plant), the etymology of which is as deceze suggests.

The term could then have evolved to refer to the machinery either produced by or used in the plant ('I'm here to repair the plant machinery'), which was then shortened to give 'plant'.

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Etymonline suggests that it's a plant because it was planted:

The verb, "put in the ground to grow," is O.E. plantian, from L. plantare, from planta. Most extended usages are from the verbal sense. Sense of a building "planted" or begun for an industrial process is first attested 1789.

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George Washington Carver taught Henry Ford how to mass produce automobiles from a theory he developed by studying plants. The idea of an assembly line came from plants. Hence the term "plant".

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More likely a shortening of plantation being a place of industrialised agriculture and hard, sometimes slave, labour. "He left the cotton fields for the new engine plantation".

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