OT: Flashlights [was Re: PEP8 and 4 spaces]

Steven D'Aprano steve+comp.lang.python at pearwood.info
Sat Jul 5 12:15:32 CEST 2014

On Fri, 04 Jul 2014 19:47:45 -0700, Rick Johnson wrote:

> [A continuation of my last reply...]
> Here is a recent situation that occurred to me that showcases the
> tendency of humans to carelessly bind illogical terms to common objects,

I think you mean the tendency of certain people to go off half-cocked and 
mistake their own ignorance for knowledge.

"Since I personally don't know why flashlights are called that name, it 
clearly MUST BE that there is no reason for that name!!!"

(By the way, outside of the USA, flashlights in the rest of the English-
speaking world are usually called "torches", so called because, like the 
old-fashioned burning torch, they provide light.)

> thereby creating a inverse esoteric of ubiquitous illogic, in this case,
> the term: "flash-light".

A few minutes googling would have given you the answer: flashlights are 
called flashlights because originally you could only flash them on and 
off. Due to the high power requirements and the low battery capacities at 
the time, leaving the torch switched on would burn out the filament, 
exhaust the battery, or both.

The Oxford Dictionary also points out that "flashlight" is a term used 
for signalling and warning lights, such as in lighthouses. It doesn't say 
whether the signalling use inspired, or was inspired by, the hand-held 
flashlight. I expect that, since electric lighthouses are more than two 
decades older than flashlights, that usage came first.

Both the flashlight and the flash bulb were first patented in 1899, and 
it is possible that the name of one was influenced by the name of the 
other. Flash bulbs used an electrically-ignited filament of magnesium to 
provide a single, extremely bright, flash of light. They replaced the 
older system of a small trough of flash powder (a mixture of magnesium 
and potassium chlorate) ignited in the air.

So far from being an illogical term, the name "flashlight" actually gives 
you a glimpse into the historical background of the invention.

> Of course everyone knows that a flash light does not "flash", 

"Everybody" is wrong. I have torches (flashlights) with a "flash" 
function, where they flash on and off. I've also owned torches where they 
had a switch to turn them on and give a steady, hands-free light, and a 
second button that only generated light while it was held down.

> so why do we continue to propagate such foolish terms? 

Not a foolish term, merely a sign that technology marches on.

> Well, for the same reason
> language designers keep giving us illogical terms like "function" and
> "class", but i digress.

Oh my, I can hardly wait to hear this. It ought to be good.

> The point is we go around the world falsely believing we have a strong
> grasp of the simple things

Speak for yourself. Oh, I see you are!


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