Tuesday, May 12, 2015

tape measure / measuring tape

Emma, an English friend now living in Canada, asked me:
Have you ever looked at measuring tape/tape measure for UK/US? A Canadian friend said she uses the first for the bendy fabric kind and the second for the more rigid, retractable builders' kind.
And I said 'That's how I do it too. What do you do?'  Since this was on Facebook, I now know that I know four Englishpeople who say tape measure for both. Everyone who's commented so far follows the English/North American division that Emma and her Canadian friend observed.

In other words, I learned to call this a measuring tape:

Photo by Ben Watkins: https://www.flickr.com/photos/falcifer/

and this a tape measure:

Photo by redjar: https://www.flickr.com/photos/redjar/with/136165399/

...and my BrE-speaking friends call them both tape measure.


What's interesting is that neither the North American semantic distinction nor the North America/UK difference is recorded in most dictionaries. They (both UK and US ones) tend to say measuring tape is another word for tape measure (Merriam-Webster [learner's dictionary], Oxford). Collins has measuring tape as an alternative for tape measure in its British English listings, but doesn't include it at all in American English. The American Heritage Dictionary doesn't have measuring tape at all. (The OED's first record for measuring tape is in 1805. Tape measure is 1873.)

Now, before you say 'maybe the distinction is a regional Americanism', note that Emma's friend is from western Canada, I'm from New York state and another Californian friend has reported that he makes the same distinction. There doesn't seem to be anything else similar among us either--male and female, people who sew and people who don't. Searching on Amazon.com, the distinction is not solid, but it's a tendency--one sees more of the metal things if searching 'tape measure' and more of the cloth things when searching 'measuring tape'. (The corpora just tell us that both terms are used in both countries.)

What the dictionaries do tend to tell us is that tape line is an American alternative for tape measure--but this is a term that's completely new to me. There is only one US example in the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, and in that one the author felt the need to clarify that they meant 'some kind of measuring tape of some sort'. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, only one of the eight examples of tape line (as part of surveyors' tools) might be relevant--most are about making a line of tape (e.g. on a floor). And in the Corpus of Historical American English, the most recent relevant example is from the 1930s. The original citation in the OED is from Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language (1847), and it seems to have just been repeated in dictionaries ever since. So this looks much less current than the measuring tape/tape measure distinction. Attention lexicographers!

79 comments:

ellarien said...

I'm another data point for UK people saying 'tape measure' for both. It's usually fairly obvious from context which is meant, and when it isn't obvious either will do the job; my mother and I use both kinds interchangeably for measuring our knitting.

Debby said...

I'm American (from New Jersey) and I say "tape measure" for both.

Anonymous said...

Another UK person here using "tape measure" for both.

Anonymous said...

I learned English in Minnesota and make the distinction, although my mother was a professional seamstress and upholsterer, which may have biased me.

Jonathan Lennox said...

American – Western Massachusetts – and I make this same distinction. I also am not familiar with “tape line.” Neither I nor my parents sew more than casually.

Jonathan Lennox said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
n0aaa said...

AmE I do what you do but often use "steel tape" for the thing on the spring. (California, Massachusetts upbringing, many years in Iowa since).

Eloise said...

Another Brit that doesn't make the distinction except by context. Although I do remember having my waist measured for something that was being sewed using a steel tape measure in extremis once.

David Crosbie said...

I don't think I ever say measuring tape. For that steel thingy I don't have a precise term. I might just say measure if that was enough for me to be understood.

Come to think of it, I might even write Bring a measure with you if the context made it clear what and how the thingy was supposed to measure.

In speech, it's an object whose description can be negotiated when you're face to face. In writing, if all the characteristics were relevant. I might stipulate a retracting steel measure of at least [LENGTH].

Jamie said...

I'm from the US (grew up in the South, Midwestern adulthood) and I use tape measure for both. I sew and knit, but measuring tape is not a phrase I encounter very often. (Are you familiar with Ravelry, the social media site for fiber arts folks? I'm curious about the tape measure/measuring tape ratio you'd find there. It's not Google-searchable, and it's an international community. A dissertation waiting to happen!)

Cathy said...

I'm with Debby and Jamie -- an American (California) who says "tape measure" for both. In fact, I always thought "measuring tape" was a Britishism.

Anonymous said...

I make the distinction, but I've encountered a few people who didn't/don't. Those people usually earned funny looks in my sewing circles, and once I watched as the elderly owner of a fabric shop berated one of his young customers for using "tape measure". (He got increasingly unpleasant in the last few years before he retired, so maybe he isn't a good example.)

On the other hand, some of SO's friends taunted one of their own for requesting a "measuring tape" while we were all working on another friend's home renovation. In his defence, his mother was a seamstress. And SO's friends are merciless teasers.

– Anonymous in New Jersey

dr-tectonic said...

American from Colorado. The boxy metal object is definitely a tape measure, and the ruled strip of fabric is definitely a measuring tape. I don't use a measuring tape very often, so I might have trouble bringing the correct name to mind and end up saying "tape measure" (or, more likely, "ribbon ruler thingy") in the moment, but I feel sure that those are their proper names.

Autolycus said...

I'm another BrE speaker who says "tape measure" for both. And to me, a "tape line" would be what the police set up to stop people walking all over a crime scene.

Anonymous said...

A long fabric tape which is wound into a case is a 'cloth tape'--Southern US

Jen said...

Central Massachusetts native here. I use tape measure for the construction version, and usually use measuring tape for the sewing version. However, while I might call the sewing tool a tape measure, I don't think I'd ever call the construction tool a measuring tape. I don't remember anyone ever instructing me that the two had different names or anything like that; although I knit, I don't come from a particularly crafty or handy family and nobody was a professional in either field. I agree Ravelry might be a really good place to get a lot of perspectives on this.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of the americans here, the cloth thing is a measuring tape, although I don't own or use one much-the last few times I needed one, I used a piece of string and a ruler, and the metal box one is a tape measure, which I do own, use, and need a name for reasonably often. (Chicago native)

Kristen F. said...

American here in Atlanta. I use both measuring tape and tape measure for the metal one, but I think I'd only use measuring tape for the cloth one.

Also, my mother (American, grew up in North Carolina and GA) always says "tape measurer", with the extra r on the end for an extra syllable. That has probably seeped into my speech at least a couple times!

Kirk Poore said...

I'm an American (California and now Illinois), and I use both interchangeably. I've never seen a distinction made. I've never heard of tape line, though "cloth tape" sounds familiar in a sewing context.

Buzz said...

I'm an American, and I use "tape measure" and "measuring tape" interchangeably for both kinds. However, there might still be a slight difference in how I perceive the terms. If I had to imagine a prototypical "tape measure," it would definitely be metal, while the prototypical "measuring tape" might be the cloth kind.

Jane said...

American from the midwest. Both tape measure and measuring tape would be perfectly acceptable to me. If I needed to be specific about the flexible kind I would probably say cloth measuring tape. I can't imagine how using either version would ever cause confusion.
-Jane

Emilio Márquez said...

This is what Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2010) says:

MEASURE (noun) – (Instrument for measuring) 5 [C] an instrument such as a stick, a long tape or a container that is marked with standard units and is used for measuring (see also TAPE MEASURE)

MEASURING TAPE (noun) = TAPE MEASURE

TAPE MEASURE (also TAPE, MEASURING TAPE) (noun) a long narrow strip of plastic, cloth or flexible metal that has measurements marked on it and is used for measuring the length of something

Dick Hartzell said...

Well, this is one of those situations where you say both things in your head long enough and you're no longer sure what you really say.

But since my sewing is mostly limited to buttons, I'm reasonably sure I call the home-improvement device a measuring tape.

However, as a baseball fan I was instantly reminded that mammoth home runs are sometimes referred to as tape-measure home runs as this Google image search result makes clear. (I tried a Google text search on "measuring tape home run" and found the initial results pulled examples with the wording "tape measure home run", so that's definitely the preferred wording.)

Unknown said...

I'm pretty sure I use both interchangably - I've thought about it too much, and now I can't figure out if I use one more often than the other, but I definitely don't have a distinction between the two objects. I never even considered that they were distinct terms until reading this post, but I'm now recalling several instances of my wife getting annoyed when I brought her the wrong thing. I though she just wasn't being clear, but now I'm guessing she asked for a measuring tape, and I brought her a tape measure. I lived in eastern PA until I was 20, and have lived in north carolina for the past 10 years.

Danni said...

I use both interchangeably for both types, but no idea where I got either from. Maybe reading the dictionary as a kid? I'm from Liverpool, England but speak oddly, so I'm not representative of anyone but myself.

Anonymous said...

Australian, and I would observe the distinction.

Nicholas said...

In London, they are both tape measures. Until today, I had never heard the expression "measuring tape".

Christian Johnson said...

American, jumble of dialects (Pacific Northwest, Northern Plains, Mid-Atlantic, with a smidge of Central Texas), don't make the distinction and, like others, I had to think really hard about it. I remember needing the cloth type and saying something like "a soft [measuring tape/tape measure], like tailors use." It's a rare need for me.

Victoria said...

Another Brit (London) who says 'tape measure' for both. 'Measuring tape' sounds a little more old-fashioned, or definitely more related to the sewing world.

Beaver121 said...

In Australia, "tape measure" for both. It's a syllable shorter than "Measuring tape!

Jay said...

Irish person here, I'd say measuring tape for both

Buzz said...

Since bare "measure" as a term for these things has come up twice now, I want to point out that that usage does not exist in American English. I would never know what to make of, "Bring a measure with you," for example.

Mindo14 said...
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Mindo14 said...

American in the St. Louis, MO area.

I never thought about it, but I would think they are interchangeable. but do know I tend to say measuring tape the most often. Not for one or the other, but for both. Although I will add that I was raised by a single mother who sews, and my Grandfather was a carpenter.

missom said...

I'm Australian (although I’ve just moved to New York and have used both quite extensively in the process of decorating an apartment) and I would make the same distinction you do.

Unknown said...

American, from New York City: I use Tape Measure for both, but I think I'll start using Measuring Tape for the cloth or paper ones. (I have a bunch of paper ones that Ikea provides in their stores.) And I like n0aaa's phrase, Steel Tape. I think I'll start using that, too.

Was age considered in this survey? I should think that Measuring Tape might be used more by older people.

I've never heard Tape Line. But I agree with Autolycus that it could suggest what I call Caution Tape. The real name for that seems to be "Police Line Do Not Cross Tape"!

kaellhill said...

From Seattle, although I have lived all over the US. I use both terms for both types interchangeably. I never consider that there was a difference and view them as synonyms.

naath said...

I'm British (Essex/Cambridgeshire) and I use both/either for both objects. But then I talk to a lot of Americans (from all over) about sewing, so maybe I'm just hopelessly confused.

Matthew Richardson said...

I am from West Virginia and I make the same distinction that you do.

Matt

Anonymous said...

I'm a Midwest (Iowa) native from farm families who use both frequently. I definitely have the distinction for these objects. I think I would accept hearing "measuring tape" for the steel version, but not the reverse--I would be tempted to correct someone who asked for tape measure meaning a cloth tape.

I've also never heard of "tape line" in relation to either even though phrases like "plumb bob" are familiar to me.

David Crosbie said...

Buzz

I would never know what to make of, "Bring a measure with you,"

I don't suppose anybody would ever write it to you. I said that I could write it in the very specific context that I was confident that the recipient could work out what I meant.

It's like saying Bring a doobry with you or Bring an oojamiflick meaning 'you know the thing I'm taking about'. Measure would mean 'you know what sort of measure I'm talking about'.

There's no usage that I'm aware of in BrE that would employ measure as a regular term. It's just that i don't have one myself.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I [BrE] would always say tape measure for the thing you use to measure your knitting - I have a retractable tape measure that lives in my knitting bag. In fact, I'm almost sure I have heard family members say "Measure tape", but not "Measuring tape".

cris said...

I may be over thinking it now but I believe I (western CndE) usually have this distinction, but interchange wouldn't bother me. If I really needed one over the other I may preface it with 'soft or 'hard' ____ ___.

It maybe a use and location thing too, as my (soft) measuring tape sits in a drawer in my kitchen, next to a drawer which contains my measuring spoons and measuring cups.
My tape measures is out in the garage with my tools.

BeE speakers, do you have 'measure cups' and 'measure spoons' instead of measuring ones?

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

BeE speakers, do you have 'measure cups' and 'measure spoons' instead of measuring ones?

Actually, we don't tend to have either, as we weigh our ingredients rather than measuring them, but if we did, or when we do, they are measuring ones!

casserlyrock said...

Growing up in Ireland, my mother made a similar distinction between the two types, the measuring tape was for dressmaking whereas the tape measure was for DIY etc. I don't know if she took this from the time she lived in England or was it from her childhood.

Rachel Coy said...

My Scottish family and I use "measuring tape" for both. We've lived in Colorado for the past 6 years.

Buzz said...

@David Crosbie: I'm sorry. I just don't follow what you're saying now at all (particularly your last paragraph).

David Crosbie said...

Buzz

I don't have a word for that measuring device with sprung retracting steel strip. That isn't really a problem — by which I mean it isn't a problem in communication. If I had to ask for one in a hardware shop, I'd use the word measure and then give a few explanatory details, perhaps starting with starting with hint at the job i wanted it for, perhaps starting with a dumb show.

That isn't a usage, it's a communication device.

PS
It took me some time to come up with the term steel strip. That's the crux of it; I just can't think of it as a 'tape'.

Danni said...

I asked my husband (by just showing him the pictures and asking him to name them) and he called them both measuring tape. He's from Yorkshire, UK.

He says both are correct though and would understand either.

Lyn Lloyd-Smith said...

I'm Northern Irish living in California and I would use tape measure for both. However measuring tape doesn't strike me as something I've heard only since I came to the US. I'm pretty sure people used it when I was growing up in NI but interchangeably with tape measure.
I am currently having my bathroom renovated/remodelled and am learning some new vocabulary differences, I shall have to try out measuring tape/tape measure on my plumber.

David Crosbie said...

Mrs Redboots

I have a retractable tape measure that lives in my knitting bag.

Yes! What the rest of us hadn't noted is that there's a third measuring-strip thingy
truly tape like the first of Lynne's pictures
retractable like the second picture

Here's a picture of this third type.

Now this I would call a retractable tape measure.

kiwianna said...

Midwestern American. I use measuring tape or tailors tape for a flexible fabric ruler and tape measure for a steel retractable one. I think I would allow measuring tape for the construction one, but

Vireya said...

I'm Australian and I sew. The cloth (actually fibreglass is better because it doesn't stretch) one has been a tape measure all my life. I call the metal one a tape measure, just by extension. I never saw one until I was an adult. So I just asked the handy-man of the house, who grew up with these sorts of things, and he also calls the metal one a tape measure (and always has).

Buzz said...

@David Crosbie: I think I understand why we are misunderstanding each other now. It appears that the key difference is that "measure" just doesn't mean "measuring device" in pretty much any American context. I wasn't saying that I wouldn't know what kind of "measure" you meant if you said, "Bring a measure with you." I just wouldn't have the faintest clue what you were talking about, because that meaning of the noun "measure" does not exist for me.

Anonymous said...

I'm from New Zealand. I call the builder's one a tape measure and the sewing one I'd happily call either.

Anonymous said...

David Crosbie,

I own something very similar to what you see as a third type (got it in a Christmas stocking a few years ago), and the label on it read as "retractable tape measure/measuring tape".

It prompted an ongoing conversation with SO about the differences between tape measures and measuring tapes. We both thought that the label was odd because we both agreed that the item had to be a measuring tape because of its flexibility.

Funny that I'd forgotten about that when I originally posted. But now I think I know what the true distinction is for me:

fairly rigid = tape measure
fairly flexible = measuring tape

–Anonymous in New Jersey

Biochemist said...

In my British kitchen I have measuring jugs (calibrated in imperial pints and litres: a cup = half a pint) and measuring spoons. For dressmaking I use a tape measure, or perhaps a measuring tape.
In his workshop, my BH uses a tape measure, and also a wooden folding ruler, several sections each about a foot in length.

empty said...

(USA) I'm with you. The steel thing is definitely a tape measure (and, David Crosbie, I can't think of any other sort of measuring device that I call a "measure"). And the floppy thing, though I use and mention it much less often, is a measuring tape. I never noticed that I had separate terms for these until a couple of minutes ago.

kurwamac said...

I'd say tape measure for both, not that I talk about them much. Having seen someone else refer to 'steel tape', though, I'm not sure whether that rings a distant bell from my childhood, or if it's a false memory. (Have lived in UK most of my life, but spent my childhood in NYC.)

Lynne Graham said...

I was born in England, raised in South Africa, and have lived in Western Canada for 20 years. Until moving to Canada, i referred to both as tape measures. When we embarked on our first Canadian home renovation, I quickly learned to call the rigid version a measuring tape, but as a life-long sewer, the flexible version remains a tape measure. Perhaps it's just as well that I edit business documents and not fiction!

Cat. said...

Born in Colorado, lived in the Midwest all of my adult life and I distinguish "measuring tape" and "tape measure." My father, born in 1919, was a builder in Colorado his entire life and he frequently called his metal tape measure a "ruler"--as in, "Where did I set my ruler down? Bring it here!" Sometimes it was "Hand me the tape," too. These might be building trades things, though. I haven't heard it from anyone else.

Aside: yardsticks were "rulers" too, so we kids were often confused about what he was asking for.

Anonymous said...

Born and raised (reared?) in the American South - my mother taught me to use a measuring tape to measure fabric and yarn. Worked in the Pacific Northwest and the Midwest as an archeologist (archaeologist), and used tape measures to lay-out site grids and measure the locations of artifacts (artefacts) in 3-dimensions.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

Born and raised (reared?)

For me the natural BrE expression is born and bred.

When not linked to born and..., the passive verb I'd use is not reared but brought up.

My mother's put-down of ill manners was

He wasn't brought up. He ws dragged up.

Little Black Sambo said...

"The boxy metal object is definitely a tape measure, and the ruled strip of fabric is definitely a measuring tape."
That correspondent sees no need for any discussion.

biochemist said...

David Crosbie -
I agree that 'born & bred' is what we Brits would say - in fact, wasn't it Shakespeare's phrase? But someone pointed out that this is an inversion, because breeding is what happens before birth (as we see in pedigrees, for humans as well as dogs, horses, etc). Although we may describe someone's behaviour as well-bred, we are really commenting on their 'rearing'

David Crosbie said...

biochemist

The OED comments that bred in born and bred was originally used in the 'cherished-in-the-womb' sense, but is now in used in the 'raise, bring up' sense.

Shakespeare actually got the two words in conception⇒birth order in Twelfth Night:

......................................I was bred and borne
Not three houres trauaile from this very place.


Two early quotes use three verbs:

(1340) In þe first he sal be born and bredde,
And in þe secunde be nuryst.


which I take to mean
'He'll firstly be born and bred, and secondly be nourished'.

(1542) In the same Isle born, breden, and brought vp

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I'd say I'm Sussex-bred, which I am, although not Sussex-born (which I'm not, alas).

Anonymous said...

@David Crosbie,

AmE has "born and bred" too. We just also have "born and raised". (I'd never heard or seen "born and reared" before Anonymous's comment.

But, that's off topic, and I actually came back here to see if you (or anyone else) had a response/some insight to my last comment regarding the "third type".

Does anyone else base the distinction on flexibility/rigidity? Does it make sense for those who don't make the distinction that someone who does might use flexibility/rigidity to differentiate between the two?

– AiNJ

Anonymous said...

I see someone has mentioned a 'yardstick'. Ours when I was a kid (in NZ) was a wooden one called the 'metre rule'. It was kept in the kitchen and used if anything needed measuring (rather than finding a measuring tape / tape measure) but had a range of other uses, say, pushing something off a high shelf or threatening your sibling with violence.

David Crosbie said...

Anonymous

Does anyone else base the distinction on flexibility/rigidity?

Well, I do.

But that may be largely due to my age and childhood experience.

When I was building a vocabulary as a little boy, measuring the length of things (at least in our home) was a very gendered activity.

My mother measured her knitting with what she always called a tape measure and never called it anything else.

My father had a yardstick, which he didn't use much, and a more practicable expandable ruler. Both were like the things used for drawing straight lines and making small measurements. All were made of wood, of a start . So ruler was an obvious term for all of them.

When plastic replaced wood, I felt no need to change the term ruler. Somebody says that fibreglass replaced the cloth of the flexible thingy. Even if I'd noticed, I wouldn't have wanted to change the term tape measure.

Then came the new thingy with a retractable steel strip that was both flexible and rigid. It didn't fit either archetype as an object — even though it had the function of both.

I suspect most people posting here were familiar with the latter thingy in childhood, and therefore do have a term for it. They chose
either to class it by function with the former,
or to make an arbitrary shift of term-order between tape measure and measuring tape.

My guess is that those who made the latter choice are (almost) randomly distributed between those who learned tape measure first and those who learned measuring tape first. There may be slight geographical biases, but essentially I don't believe that where you were raised/reared/brought up as a child is all that important.

I'd be more interested in how one or other term came to be standard for the old cloth thingy. The OED quotes measuring tape from as early as 1805, while the first tape-measure quote is from 1873.

I wonder whether it's something to do with the mass-production and mass-distribution into households of what had been a tailor's speciality.

Whatever the reason, it seems that the original term was replaced, but not by everybody.

Ted said...

I'm another one who generally makes the same distinction as Lynne, although I would undoubtedly understand a substitution (and might use one myself if I didn't immediately think of the "correct" term).

The zig-zaggy thing made of pivoting wooden pieces, however, can only be a carpenter's rule.

sablonneuse said...

For what it's worth I'm also in the 'tape measure for both' camp.

Mike Peatman said...

Tape measure is the only commonly used term for both in my experience. I'm British and have lived in different parts of the country

Anonymous said...

AmE, with sewing experience - a measuring tape is definitely flexible, a tape measure may or may not be, but is probably retractible.

Julie said...

AmE, California (born and raised): Both devices are tape measures, but measuring tape doesn't sound odd for either one. "Measure" used alone would be a measuring cup or spoon, normally qualified by size: "I need a half-cup measure."

Discodoris said...

I'm very much English and my grandmother was a tailor and taught dressmaking at college. She (and thus I) always called the fabric version a tape measure and none of my family make a distinction between the sewing and DIY versions. I suppose it muddies the water a little further to observe that I have a garden tape measure which is fabric, but extends 30 metres from its reel, with a pop out handle to wind it back in.

srobalino said...

Originally from California, I think I've always used them interchangeably, just said whatever came to mind first, though tape measure was more common.

Doug Sundseth said...

US but lived in Europe for more than 5 years. Free variation for me. (Never occurred to me that there might be a difference.)

I'll note that I've done some costuming and a fair bit of finish carpentry and I've never been corrected for either term.

Imnorobot said...

Illinois US, here, and I use measuring tape to mean either one interchangeably, although the steel one "correctly" being tape measure and flexible one being measuring tape holds true, so anything else ends up with someone saying something about it. My mom can sew, and my sister and I do, sometimes, but the flexible measuring tool is most often used to measure random objects that the steel just can't get wrapped up around, since we don't make clothes or anything like that.