We rarely shine the spotlight on a single word in the Lounge but this month we have a special honoree: the noun patch. We've heard a couple of startling uses of patch recently and it got us thinking about what a great word it is, and how well it exemplifies the genius of language and the genius of English.

There are few things not to love about patch: it's short, and it's easy to spell and pronounce by a speaker of any language. It occupies a spot, a bit past the middle, of the 5,000 most frequently used words in English. It has numerous rhymes and it has been kicking around English since the 14th century (the verb patch, derived from it, first appears in the 15th century). Patch has uncanny sound sense, making it easy for learners of English to associate with the things it denotes: if you repeat patch to yourself, mantralike, it takes a very long time before its meaning fades and it becomes a mere sound cluster. But what is a patch? Ask a dozen people and you will probably get half a dozen answers, all of them correct in their own way.

The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary each have 21 senses for the noun patch. The college dictionaries and the Visual Thesaurus settle for a more modest nine to twelve, and pocket dictionaries may get by with only two or three. The meaning of patch that really interests us, however, is not one of these numbered and delineated senses, but the one that lurks in the native speaker's mental lexicon: what qualities must a thing have in order to earn the name patch? What are the defining qualities that make a patch a patch, and not something else?

Adam Kilgarriff, a computational linguist much revered in the Lounge for his contributions to lexicography, wrote a paper called "I Don't Believe in Word Senses" in which he argues convincingly that word senses do not really exist – that is, they do not exist independently of the criteria we use to differentiate them: they exist only relative to a task for which they are needed. This idea is especially pertinent to very old "homesteader" words like patch that have had many centuries to establish, expand, and hold their claim on a conceptual space in the mind.  Through each encounter with the linguistic symbol patch and its real-world objects, we develop a notion of what a patch is. We all know different things not really very like each other in some respects that are called patch in English, but if called upon we can probably justify the claim to the name for any individual sort of patch, whether it be of the bad, bald, nicotine, or vegetable variety; certain qualities recur in the many different things we call patch.

To get a better idea of the main qualities that constitute patchiness for the English speaker, we dumped all the definitions of patch from a handful of dictionaries into the Visual Thesaurus VocabGrabber to produce this frequency-sorted wordcloud:

The words in the first three rows are a pretty good snapshot of what a thing has to be, have, or do in order to be called a patch in English – but only in English, mind you: it's instructive to look at a wordmap of patch with a couple of other languages displayed, to illustrate that the space occupied by patch in the English speaker's lexicon doesn't really map to a corresponding space in another language: they all require multiple terms to translate the various things that English speakers call a patch.

This brings us to the two recent usages of patch that grabbed our attention. The first was in relation to the Toyota recall debacle, in which some media outlets reported that what was required to fix the problems associated with brake failure was a software patch. We don't find that Toyota itself used this terminology, and we would be surprised if they did. Software patches have been around since the 1950s and the original coinage was an apt one. A software patch – that is,  "a small piece of code inserted into a program to correct a fault (usually temporarily) or to enhance the program" (from the Oxford English Dictionary) –  has many of the qualities we associate patches: it's small, it's a "piece," it has a reparative function, it's probably temporary.  Software patches are great for computers that sit on our desks, and even for satellites that wander lonely as clouds far above the horizon. Not so much though, to our minds, for things that hurtle down the freeway at excessive speeds, carrying precious human cargo. You want to entrust that to something called a "patch"? A patch is great for making something usable that has been disabled, but when you designate something a patch you can't escape the other attendant baggage of the word: of being makeshift, temporary, and typically employed because a more enduring or dependable solution was not available or worthwhile. This is not what you want to hear about the only thing that stands between you and roadside carnage.

The other use of patch that pricked up our ears was in an interview with a television actor, in which he reported that while filming a nude scene he was actually wearing a "modesty patch." This was a term previously unknown in the Lounge (where expanses of flesh are never on view), but upon hearing modesty patch for the first time we knew exactly what it was and what it was for. Why? Because it is so perfectly named. Those seeing the term here for the first time will also have no difficulty in surmising that a modesty patch is a small garment, worn so as to enable an actor to maintain (or feign) a shred of modesty by appearing to be nude to the camera, but not completely so to fellow actors and others on the set. We do not know who coined "modesty patch," but if we ever meet this person we will heartily congratulate him or her for the perfect aptness of the term. While perhaps not a career milestone for patch, "modesty patch" calls upon the most of the essential qualities of patch and furthers its reach over real-world objects, while further reinforcing the small but definite domain it occupies in the mental lexicon.


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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Monday May 3rd 2010, 4:44 AM
Comment by: Max Ö. (Åkersberga Sweden)
As a Swedish computer programmer I'm used to using "patch" as "some code that fixes a bug in a computer program". A relative is "kludge": "Some code that fixes a bug in a computer program - without my knowing why!"
Monday May 3rd 2010, 5:06 AM
Comment by: Cachelot (Fanore Ireland)
I find this an odd essay. First the word is assigned a great variety of properties, creating a 'who dunnit' atmosphere, suggesting that at the end there will be a revelation justifying the whole story.
If the word 'patch' were as omnipotent as the author claims it would stand to reason that it would have an equivalent in other languages. There is not in Dutch. There is the sound equivalent 'pets', meaning 'a cuff' and also 'a slash of water', but that's about it.
Akin to the phenomenon of multi applicability is the somewhat sloppy habit of using the same indicative for whatever comes in its way, like the French use the word 'truc'. If, on turn, you translate this into 'trick' compared in usage to French it is virtually naked. Analysing idiosyncracies here seems to have its only pay off in the two indeed brilliant examples of recent use. Actually they seem to be the fundement the entire article is constructed on.
Monday May 3rd 2010, 7:11 AM
Comment by: Arlene J.
I loved this article - and yet I am afraid I accidentally voted mediocre when I wanted to give it a five star rating! Change my vote and blame the nuisance on the awkwardness of the iPhone's tiny screen.
Monday May 3rd 2010, 8:29 AM
Comment by: Bill M. (Hermosa Beach, CA)
In the computer world, a kludge is an awkwardly assembled patch. Sometimes there are evil patches or more likely evil kludges that make things work (not fix!) by somewhat devious mechanisms. A modesty patch might be a virtuous kludge.
Monday May 3rd 2010, 9:31 AM
Comment by: Caitlin A. (Guilford, CT)
it also makes a lovely clown name...
Monday May 3rd 2010, 9:57 AM
Comment by: Walter I. C. (Lexington, TX)
no mention of the given name of the character played by robin williams in the film 'PATCH ADAMS'.....?!?.
Monday May 3rd 2010, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Radames M. (Staten Island, NY)
This brings memories of my cat,“Patch”. When he was born his legs had patches of white fur and the name stuck.
Monday May 3rd 2010, 11:16 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Fascinating! Words, like the life they describe, are bottomless! Even little words like patch. I also like the comment about the French "truc," which in many cases could be translated as "thingy."
Monday May 3rd 2010, 1:53 PM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
The general sense of patch is: a small thing on a large thing, often for repair purposes, and often distinguishable from the large thing. All this stems from the original meaning of a piece of cloth sewn over a hole. But in the case of the computer programming patch, the small thing is usually not distinguishable from the large thing; it becomes an integral part of it and if done well cannot be discerned by those who come later.

The sense of "kluge" is completely different: an awkward, unaesthetic work-around scorned by the cognoscenti. If a programmer uses it to describe his (or her) own work, it is offered apologetically; if used to describe another person's work, it is an expression of derision.
Monday May 3rd 2010, 2:49 PM
Comment by: JoAnna V. (Rock Rapids, IA)
Fun article! Definitely interesting perspective on the word. It also conjured a soft "spot" feeling in my heart as my cat is called Patches. White with black patches, black tail, and a diamond white patch on the face. Just glad I didn't name her what my previous 12-year-old girl self thought of...Yes, the first and non-winning choice was, wait for it, Moonlight. LOL. Thank goodness for Patches, or Peaches...as the word derivative has been evolved to in this case.
Monday May 3rd 2010, 4:29 PM
Comment by: tony T. (yucaipa, CA)
Also patch has drifted into topological use, close to tessellation. Patchwork quilt is common use. Patch of land is another.
Monday May 3rd 2010, 7:43 PM
Comment by: Robert B. (Norwich United Kingdom)
Interesting article, but it's not a patch on the one last week.
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 12:45 PM
Comment by: Oz (Bloomington, IN)
Yes, a case could be made that there is an overarching conceptual unity connecting the various "senses" of patch. But this doesn't convince me that the same could be said about the multiple senses of all other words. As for the claim that "patch" is easy for speakers of foreign languages to pronounce: think of the often misquoted lines uttered by the Mexican bandit in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. ("Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges! I don't have to show you any stinkin' badges!" Badges comes out as bodges, since the vowel sound of badge doesn't exist in Spanish. Same with the vowel sound of patch, no?
Tuesday May 4th 2010, 1:26 PM
Comment by: John B. (Muncie, IN)
Ditto Arlene J's comment, except my erroneous vote was caused by lack of sleep and a beer with lunch--both bad influences on behavior, especially when thinking is required.
Tuesday May 11th 2010, 10:05 AM
Comment by: Arturo NY (KATONAH, NY)
Very interesting piece. The word that came to mind first, when I first confronted the word 'patch' was 'repair' which I can't find anywhere in the discussion. Which I suppose makes your point.

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