Final Research Paper
English 5300

What do you call it? A short survey on words
Terms used for common objects


With this project, I intend to discover what words a random sample of people use to name some common objects. It will also provide me with some experience in the difficulties encountered by formal linguistic research. I speculated that geographic area determines usage, such as earbob for earring (a Southern usage) and flapjacks for pancakes (a Northern usage). Also, I speculated there would be some difference due to age in word usage as in pillowslip for older generations rather than pillowcase more commonly used currently.


The research consists of an Internet based survey. The survey consists of ten questions on words and two demographic questions. I provided the survey to the public for five days. Responses were elicited from the discussion forum of the national Red Hat Society, an e-mail request to the Austin-tatious Red Hat Society, and requests to the students in my classes.

Terms researched were earring, necklace, bobby pin, pillowcase, dishtowel, dishrag, pancakes, pill bugs, hosiery, and garters. To facilitate identification, I provided illustrations of three of the items, pancakes, pill bugs, and bobby pins.


The survey elicited 58 responses over the five days it was available. Of the 58 responses, one was over 75 years old, and no one under 18 answered the survey. The largest group was 55-65 with 22. The age group 45-55 was second with 18. This is understandable given that full membership in the Red Hat Society requires you be over 50. See the chart below for the complete frequency of age.





























Over 75








Figure 1: Frequency of age.

The first question: What do you call a piece of jewelry you put on your ear? All but one of the respondents put the word earring. There were some major differences in spelling but only one used a different term, trim. For the second choice, several mentioned the word earbob as well as ear pin and cuff. Secondary choices included such unusual terms as ear bulb, ornament, ear guard, and dangle.

The second question: What do you call a piece of jewelry you put around your neck? As with the first question, the responses were very consistent. All but one respondent said necklace and that one called it a chain. (I did not have gender indicated on the survey so this may have been a male who would not wear a necklace but a chain.) Alternate choices suggested included choker, collar, string of bead, cuff, stand of ___, and baubles.

The third question: What do you call the cover for a bed pillow? Here again, the respondents were very consistent. Fifty-four of them put down pillowcase (with highly divergent spellings) as their first choice. There was one pillowslip, one pillow cover, and one pillow sheet (a completely new term to me). Alternate entries included pillow sham, and quite a few pillowslips.

The fourth question: What do you use to dry dishes? The respondents had fun with this question. Thirty-one of them used a dishtowel while five used just a towel. Three called it a kitchen towel, while two used a tea towel and one a cup towel. Four respondents let the dishes air dry and four others use the dishwasher. Interestingly, two said they dried them with a dishrag. Secondary choice included paper towels, drying towel, and rag.

The fifth question: What do you use to wash dishes? The wording of this question did not get the responses I expected. While 16 indicated they used a dishcloth and nine a dishrag, eleven said the dishwasher. Two said they used dish soap, and two dish detergent. Ten use a sponge while other answers ranged from gloves, hot water and detergent, to Who does dishes? Secondary choices were just as varied. One woman answered that her husband does the dishes. A few respondents said washrag as was debated in class. Other things mentioned were brush, pad, and scrubber.

The sixth question: What do you call these? All but two of the respondents gave some spelling variation of pancakes for this breakfast food. One called them hot cakes as a first choice and one said big stack. Secondary choices were often humorous. One respondent called them fattening while another put in Yummy. Flap jacks, wheat cakes, griddlecakes, Johnnycakes, and panny cookens (perhaps an Anglicization of a German or Dutch phrase) were among the other additional terms mentioned.

The seventh question: What do you call these? Bobby pins was the first choice of 47 respondents with one adding the emphatic note that these were not hairpins. Eight respondents differed with that statement and referred to these as hairpins. One lone respondent called them pins. The secondary suggestion included only two additional terms, hair grips and clips.

The eighth question: What do you call these? (Hint: It is small, black, has lots of legs and when you bother it, it rolls up into a ball.) As with questions four and five, the answers here were many and humorous. Twenty responded with some spelling variation of roly-poly bug. Ten said they called them pill bugs. Three expressed their emotions about them rather than name them with responses of eeeeeeeew! and Yucky. At least four gave a spelling variation of doodlebug while other guesses were caterpillar, centipede, weevil, stink bug and armadillo bug. (I thought that last one was quite clever.) Only one used an alternate name I had heard before, sow bug. Secondary suggestions included potato bug, and boll weevil. Clearly many of my respondents have never studied entomology.

The ninth question: What do you call the flimsy fabric coverings for your legs? This question garnered a wide variety of answers. Twelve answered hose, while 12 others called them stockings. Pantyhose got 18 responses while nine indicated nylons. Two mysterious responses may have been from men, PJs, and pants. One woman was emphatic that these were hosiery, not hose. Hose belonged in the garden. The secondary suggestions included an editorial comment, uncomfortable, and the only additional term, tights.

The tenth question: The things in question 9 sometimes have to be held up with something. What do you call what you use to hold them up? Of the respondents, 22 indicated they used the words garter belt but an equal number used only the word garters to describe what they use. Other terms given were hookups, girdle, elastic, belt, and My waist if they are pantyhose. Secondary suggestions included knot, suspenders, and supporters.

The respondents come all over the United States as well as one respondent from Canada. Twenty respondents were from Texas with eight from the Austin area. Seven were from Southern California. The other respondents were from 24 other localities ranging from New York City to a rural town in northern Michigan.

I was quite surprised by the uniformity of the answers I got. I would have expected to see a greater diversity of responses given the geographic mix of respondents. I believe the authors of our textbook are in error when they said regional speech distinctions are becoming more marked. Perhaps spoken dialect is being emphasized in rural areas as a means of preserving it but I believe the lexicon is becoming more standard. While my study is small and its conclusions could not be generalized, I believe it shows a blending of lexicon across the United States. The makers of common objects have standardized names for them. For example, while pillowslip was a common term in the early part of the Twentieth Century, packaging in stores calls them pillowcases. My mother called her hosiery nylons or nylon stockings. My grandmother would occasionally slip and refer to them as silk stockings. Packaging labels them hose or pantyhose.

Were I to repeat this study, I would use the responses I received here as a pilot and revise the questions to make them clearer. I would also include gender as one of the demographic questions. I understand now how difficult and how time consuming doing this kind of research could be but I find it fascinating.

(If you would like to see the complete survey results, here is a MSExcel file of the survey.)

© 2001 PKGibson

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