transfers and decals

John Wells recently asked me if he was right in thinking "that BrE consistently uses transfer and AmE decal for the same thing". That's the kind of question that is perhaps best answered with a rhetorical question: Is any English vocabulary used consistently?

We're talking about ways of putting images onto other things. In that semantic area, I have both the words transfer and decal in my AmE vocabulary, so I was tempted to say "No, decal means something different from transfer in AmE." But then I thought I should find out if that's just me. It's not just me. But it is complicated. 

 The word decal is definitely more AmE than BrE. 

GloWBE corpus

But what are decals? Some possibilities: 

1.  Images that can be ironed on to fabrics. E.g. on (orig. AmE) t-shirts or (orig. AmE) tote bags.

2.  Images on paper that can be transferred to other things when wet.

  • This was what John was thinking of—he recalled ones from his youth for decorating skin. These days, in both AmE and BrE, those are often called temporary tattoos. But decal in this sense is not limited to the skin ones. They might be images that are put onto, say, model airplanes, as in the top right photo here, from a how-to video.

3.  Images on vinyl (or similar material) that have sticky material on the image side, so that they can be stuck onto glass (or similar) and show through.  The companies I can find that sell them seem to call them reverse-cut vinyl [stickers/transfers/decals].

Image from diginate.com

 4.  Vinyl or other high-quality stickers of any sort, intended for use on glass, vehicles, etc.  I.e. not just the reverse-cut type, but anything of the type you'd stick onto a car window, say. 

  • In this case, we can see a phenomenon called lexical blocking. Bumper stickers should be counted under this definition as decals, but since we have a special term for bumper stickers, i.e. (orig. & mainly AmE) bumper sticker, we don't tend to call them anything else. The vinyl stickers on cars that are called decals are different enough from typical bumper stickers (in size, shape, or placement) that they don't meet the criteria for that term.

In my idiolect, decal can be any one of types 2–4, but not the iron-on type. I would call those iron-ons or iron-on transfers. But when I looked up decal in dictionaries, I found the iron-on type potentially included in some definitions, like this one from Collins COBUILD, which gives transfer as the BrE equivalent.


(However, since it says that a decal is a piece of paper, it's not clear that the vinyl type (3-4) would be included. In all except type 2, the design itself isn't paper, so it's perhaps not the greatest definition. The paper on those is a disposable part, not the decal itself.)

Other dictionaries, like Merriam-Webster and Cambridge, limit decal to types of stickers and don't mention heat-transfer, so more like how I use it. 

But then I started asking my American friends—all from my generation, but different parts of the country—what they called the things they might iron onto a t-shirt, and one (she's originally from Kansas, but has more time in Wisconsin/Illinois) immediately offered decal. The others, generally from more eastern parts of the country, said iron-on or iron-on transfer or just transfer

And so I did a Twitter poll. The problem with polls is that you usually only want to hear from some people, but other people will want to do the poll. I don't know if those other poll-takers care that I throw away their data, but I do know that I have to give them the chance to give it to me because otherwise they pretend they're part of the target group and will thereby mess up my numbers. But after a bit of math(s), we can see (a) that Americans are fairly split on whether iron-ons are included under decal and (b) that my iron-on-excluding usage has slightly more users among my Twitter followers. Keep in mind that my followers may skew older (it's Twitter) and eastward (because of time zone issues).

This all provides more fuel for the idea that we shouldn't talk about what "the American" or "the British" term for something is. (Though I'm sure you'll catch me doing that sometimes.) There's a lot of variation in both, so it's better to think of most expressions as representing an American or a British way of saying things. 

Because of the limitations of Twitter polls, I could only ask about one facet of the word's potential meaning: whether or not iron-ons are included. Some followers responded with more specific meanings for decal than I have, for example, one said that he'd only use decal for type 2, in model-making.

For transfer, it's clearly an exaggeration to call it 'British-only' in all of the senses, since Americans do seem to use it for (at least) sense 1. Yet that's what some dictionaries do.

This definition from Lexico has an example that would be at home in AmE:

I am tempted to say that transfers have a reverse-print image that is pressed onto a surface, whether that be skin, fabric, glass, etc. (so uses 1-3 above). But there are enough companies out there selling non-reverse-print "vinyl transfers" that reverse-ness is not at this point a necessary condition for many people's understanding of transfer.

To sum up: 

  • Decal is a fairly American word, but Americans vary in how they define/use it.
  • Transfer as a noun for a type of image printing/attaching occurs in British English, but is also available in AmE, especially for the iron-on type.

PS: there is variation in how decal is pronounced in AmE, particularly which syllable gets the stress. You can hear more on YouGlish. In my experience, it's more common to put the stress on the first syllable. Thanks to Adonis in the comments for raising this.

36 comments

  1. As I was reading the post, I was leaning towards iron-on decal, but after thinking about it some more, I think I used to call them iron-on stickers, but it's been years since I've used one. Now that I think about it, I use decal and sticker pretty interchangeably. Helmet decal/sticker, car decal/sticker, etc. Never used transfer. Oh, I'm a 40 yo American.

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  2. There is the additional issue as to how decal is actually pronounced.

    I see that the Collins Cobuild excerpt you posted only list the DEE-cal pronunciation, which I assume is more common, but ​də-c​əl (with two schwas) is definitely out there.

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    1. I don't think two schwas is possible (nouns in English generally need a stressed syllable), but on YouGlish I can hear both first- syllable DEE-cal and second-syllable stress də-CAL. I'll stick a link to that in the post, thanks.

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    2. Thinking of it, maybe I was wrong with the two schwas.

      It seems to me that the second pronunciation is a homophone to the German "Deckel" for lid.

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    3. "Deckel" would be a third pronunciation. DEE-cal, de-CAL, and DECK-el. (I'd leave off the 2nd e in the latter, but then the lower case L, next to the all-caps, reads too much like an I, despite not matching in this particular font.)

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  3. This takes me back. I was a keen constructor of plastic model kits back in the sixties. Kits made in the UK had transfers, those made in the US had decals, the first time I came across the word (and I've rarely come across it since).

    I remember, once the kit had been assembled and painted and the paint had dried, cutting up the piece of paper with the transfer on to separate them and then soaking each one in a saucer of water and sliding the transfer onto the model.

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  4. These days "transfer" (as in water-slide transfer) in both "Airfix" world (plastics) & aero-modelling is typically only used by the older members of the community. It a moderately good indication of the age of the writer. Anyone regularly using "transfer" is likely to be in their mid to late 50s or older. Cheers, Lurk.

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    1. 67 here, so yes. And I haven't made an Airfix kit for over 50 years.

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  5. It occurs to me that in the brief time I worked in a copy shop which was part of a larger office supply store, there was something we used that was called transfer paper. People could bring in a design or picture and have it run through a standard photocopier onto this and it would produce an iron-on picture. I think I always heard people refer it as a "heat transfer" or just a "transfer" in this context, and never as a decal.

    Personally I would think of decals or stickers as going onto something solid (glass, plastic, metal) without heat and with something sticky on them (either the pre-applied sticky backing that bumper-stickers and etc. have or the glue type backing that was described for the model decals that are wet first and then slid off the paper and attached). I think I would use decal and sticker interchangeably for the ones that you get wet, but sticker exclusively for the ones that have the tacky backing and the peel-off paper that protects it.

    Transfers usually need to be heat set and are often permanent, and I think of them usually going onto cloth, like t-shirts, though I've seen a machine that could transfer a design onto a specially designed mug with heat. I also worked in a print shop that had sheets of lettering which we could rub onto paper and those could scrape off again if we weren't careful with them. Either way it's more of a physical process to transfer from one thing to the other.

    Decals and stickers are self contained, you just slap them on and the glue does the work. Transfers need more work to transfer. For the record, this is in western South Dakota and I'm in my early 60's.

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    1. I have bought sheets of pre-printed transfer paper at various "dos", to iron on to plain t-shirts later, or to give to friends to do likewise. One had, I remember, to be a bit careful with the ironing

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    2. My (millennial midwestern American) sense of "transfer" is about the same as yours, particularly your last sentence contrasting with stickers. I'd add, though, that a salient difference between stickers and transfers is that for a sticker the backing paper is taken off (in fact must be) before it can be affixed to a surface. And a sticker's backing paper is on the same side (the "back") that will be affixed to that surface. Meanwhile a transfer's backing paper has to stay on until the transfer has been affixed to the other surface, and the backing paper is on the opposite side (the "front") as the side that's affixed to the other surface.

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    3. @Joel

      Your analysis of the position of the backing paper vis a vis a transfer works for me (BrE) in the context of dry transfer lettering (for example, Letraset), but not for transfers with a water soluble glue, of the sort model makers use to embellish their airplanes etc. There the backing sheet is on the glue side and hence at the 'back' of the transfer, rather like your sticker example.

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    4. I'm entirely unfamiliar with the sort of transfers that model makers seem to use. I was actually quite surprised by the video above since I wouldn't consider that a "transfer."

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  6. British, elderly. I have never knowingly heard or spoken the word "decal", and have no idea how I'd pronounce it. However, I have come across it in books by American authors and was able to deduce from context that it was what I would call a "sticker". "Transfers", for me, refer to the little sheets of postage-stamp sized pictures one could buy some 60 years ago, which you soaked in water and then transferred to a book provided for the purpose (rather like children's sticker books of today - Lynne, I expect your daughter had some when she was younger; would you have called those stickers, or what?). I haven't seen them for many years, but have seen, like, and occasionally even use temporary tattoos (at 67, I think I'm far too old to have a proper tatt, but just sometimes a temporary one fills the bill!).

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    1. I should perhaps clarify that the sticker books my grandsons love have pages of peel-off stickers in various shapes that you place in scenes in the book provided; the best kind can be moved when you get bored of the current layout!

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  7. I'm 70, always lived in Central Texas, where I grew up with the southern tendency to first-syllable accents (gee-tar, dee-troit, ree-port, IN-surance), and I sometimes got to help my older brother put dee-cals on his model planes and cars. But I think my early exposure to the "standard Midwestern accent" of television may be why my mother complained for most of my life that I didn't "talk right," I think largely because I was okay with "guiTAR" and "deTROIT" and "inSURance" (and even "umBRELla," oh my!). I've often been accused of "talking like a Yankee," so I may be a terrible example, but I know that now I flip between "DEE-cal" and "de-CAL" with no pattern I can discern. (I do it some with insurance, umbrella, and report, too.)

    I also have exactly the understanding of decals ands transfers that Red Sky describes above.

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  8. Mid-60's from the Rocky Mountain western US. Dark Star's explanation describes my usage very well, so it likely does have a generational component. And always DEE-cal.

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  9. AmE, 67, lived in Northeast US till 1991, Virginia since then. To me, a decal (DEE-cal) is something for model building. Thanks to Dark Star for bringing back memory of what I called transfer lettering. Sticky pictures that you peel off a sheet and attach to paper or some other dry surface are what I would call stickers.

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  10. To be honest, I don't know what I'd call the iron-on things because I don't remember ever really talking about them. They weren't a thing we ever really used, so I never needed to talk about them. I know what they are, and I know I heard of them as a kid, but I can't for the life of me remember how they were referred to now that I've read both terms. (I'm an American who grew up in the Midwest, Indiana to be specific.)

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  11. I once belonged to a club for people who collected ephemera from radio stations -- predominantly bumper stickers. (There were some club members who would collect letterhead, back when that was a thing, calendars, newsletters. etc., all as issued by radio stations.) The name of the club was "Decalcomania". I still have a couple of plastic storage bins with the memorabilia I collected back then. (It's a largely obsolete field: you don't see radio stations giving out free bumper stickers at the state fair any more, because people don't generally put radio-station stickers on anything.)

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    1. It's not mentioned in your post, but I see from Chambers dictionary that "decal" is actually short for "decalcomania" which is derived from a French word for the process of transferring a design from one surface to another.

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    2. One of the episodes of Lexicon Valley goes into some etymology and history of "Decalcomania" https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/linguafile-vii-cockamamie/id500673866?i=1000331306924

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  12. Does anybody else remember Letraset, which were sheets of printed letters in various fonts, and you rubbed off the ones you wanted with a pencil, having first removed the backing sheet. Was it a thing in the USA? It was very popular here.

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    1. I do indeed. A friend at university introduced me to it and for some years I had sheets of it for when I wanted to do neat lettering. Word processors did away with the need, of course.

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    2. As an undergrad, one of my jobs involved selling Letraset. It was a favo(u)rite among the zine-publishing crowds of the 80s.

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    3. BrE (Scot, 60+). Before printers were commonplace, we had a “letraset girl” in our office for producing neat graphs and diagrams. This is the first time that I have come across the word decal, but would have guessed the pronunciation DAYcal.

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  13. I (BrE, late 40s) understand decal as a sticker-type thing. Here is a thread where some British people are talking about restoring a bicycle and use decal for stickers for both bikes and cars:
    http://citycyclingedinburgh.info/bbpress/topic.php?id=20312&page=2

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  14. As a Canadian, I pronounce it as "deckul". In fact as a child I remember distinctly thinking that the American pronunciation was of a type with "gee-tar", cee-gar" and "Eye-rak". It just shows you how kids can become language snobs at a young age fed by knee -jerk resistance to the steamroller next door. All along Canadians seem to be the outlier and we have clung to our pronunciation. But Lynne, are there any other English speaking countries who pronounce decal as do we Canadians

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    1. That's outside my expertise. You can try YouGlish (there are some Americans pronouncing it like that there)

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  15. I (AmE, California) say DEE-cal, and I wouldn't use it to describe something transferred to fabric.

    A few years ago--oops, I see now that it was 12 years ago--I learned the connection between "cockamamie" and "decal." https://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2008/10/word-of-the-week-cockamamie.html

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  16. Which of the four definitions did John Wells mean ?

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  17. BrEnglish speaker, male, over 70, I'd agree with Mrs Redboots. I've read the word decal, occasionally, in US books, but the things used by modellers to me are definitely transfers. I've no idea though whether younger generation modellers use the same word. I think I'd assume the same was used of the things that go on tee-shirts. My small grandchildren have stickers e.g. which they get given as a reward for going to the dentist without complaining.

    No idea how decal is pronounced. I think I'd guess dee-kal.

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  18. For me (American, lower Midwest), the ironed on kind can be an "iron-on transfer" or an "iron-on", but not simply a "transfer".

    Without context, unmodified "transfer" as a noun doesn't conjure up any meaning at all for me. Just the verb meaning.

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  19. The only "non-reverse" vinyl transfers I saw online seemed to actually be double transfers: A right-way image is first transferred onto an intermediate surface, which reverses it, and is then transferred again onto the final surface, which reverses it again.

    Perhaps it could be said that reversing the image is a defining property of the basic transfer process but that since some more complicated transfer processes have two transfers that not all transfers are originally reversed?

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  20. I'm watching the opening Sunday of the NFL on Sky Sports in the UK. One of the American commentators just mention the helmet decals. For the record, she pronounced it D-cals, second syllable rhyming with pals.

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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)