Socket to Me

1. “There’s a plug under your table. Yeah, just there, yeah!”

2. “Sorry, is there a plug beside you there?”

    “Yeah.”

I heard both of these utterances at the weekend: the first in a pub on Saturday, and the second on a bus on Sunday. Nothing strange about that, except for one thing: in both cases the people were lying!!!

Well, not lying really. Or even at all. But certainly not being accurate. For you see, there wasn’t a plug under the table, and there wasn’t a plug behind the young man. What could be found though, in both cases, was a socket.

I noticed pretty soon after starting to teach English that learners often have trouble with the word socket. And by trouble I mean no-one knows it, though the word plug is familiar to a lot of learners (this is also generally the case with learners of other languages – just ask me for the Italian or French for socket, I dare you).

What I find odd though, is that so many native speakers (like the people I overheard at the weekend) use the word plug instead of socket. If it were simply a case of socket being an obscure word most people don’t know I’d understand, but it’s a pretty well-known word, I think, even if no-one seems to use it. And I sometimes feel myself almost using plug instead of socket, so this isn’t something I’m complaining about.

No, there’s something else going on.

Is it just that socket sounds kind of technical, like some odd instrument that you know the name of, but would never really use? Like sprocket. But then, we don’t have any problems with rocket. Or pocket.

I think I certainly understand why we call sockets plugs, and not vice versa, at least. The plug is the thing we always pick up, and handle, and move. It’s the active part, whereas the socket just sits there, passively, waiting patiently to receive the plug. The plug is just going to be more present in our minds.

And maybe, because the two always go together, we think of them as one object, split into two parts. And we call that object a plug, because that’s the part we always have in our hands.

Or, maybe, there’s no reason behind it at all. Still, I’m curious to know if you make this mistake, or if it’s something people do in your native tongue, if you’re not a native English speaker.

7 thoughts on “Socket to Me

  1. I appreciate this post, having experience with getting the wrong part at an electronics store because of an error in this distinction. As a child, my siblings and I would call a wall outlet (i.e., a socket) a “plug-in”. After all, that’s where the plug (of the vacuum cleaner, for instance) would fit. Perhaps this description – of a socket’s function – became shortened over time? If so, the result would indeed be ironic, since it now means the opposite! Regardless, thank you for your regular thoughts on language like this one. They are thought-provoking and often entertaining, as you look at the foibles and idiosyncrasies of our language.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! I find the name ‘plug-in’ really interesting, as it’s related to the verb ‘to plug,’ so it makes me wonder if our association of the action with the object (it’s where we plug things in) makes us call it a plug.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Apart from my Canadian hubby, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t just say, “Plug,” for both parts in general day to day conversation. He says, “Plug-in,” or “Outlet,” where as I always just use, “Plug,” like everyone else I know here in the UK. As you said though, it’s not for lack of knowledge; I know it’s a socket, yet only use the word when talking to an electrician, and it’s the same for pretty much everyone I know.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m English. I did know the bit you plugged the plug into was called a socket, mainly because Dad was an electrician. But I suspect I would still call a socket a plug in conversation, because that’s what everybody else seems to call it. In the end, when talking about dull-ish stuff like plugs, you tend to go for instant communication over accuracy (?)

    Liked by 1 person

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