Meanings of Tool

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A reader wants to know who’s right about the use of the word tool:

My brother vehemently asserts that a tractor counts as a tool, since it is an invention that helps someone do something. However, the rest of [my friends and family] maintain that since it is mechanical as opposed to manual, it does not fit the general connotation of a tool. Please help in settling this discussion once and for all.

Like many common English words, tool is used with both literal and figurative meanings.

Take the word hammer, for example. At the most basic level of meaning, a hammer is an implement for pounding nails or breaking something up. But pianos contain hammers that strike strings without breaking them, to produce sound.

King Edward I of England (1239-1307) is known as “the Hammer of the Scots” because of his military incursions into Scotland, when he did his best “to hammer” the inhabitants into submission.

So is it with tool.

The noun tool has been with us since King Alfred’s day, when he used it in his translation of Boethius to refer to one of the necessities of life: “a tool [to practice] some craft.”

Tool derives from an Old Germanic verb that meant “to prepare” or “to make.”

In his dictionary of 1755, Dr. Johnson (1709-1784) defined tool as “any instrument of manual operation.”

The OED expands on this basic definition:

tool noun: a mechanical implement for working upon something, as by cutting, striking, rubbing, or other process, in any manual art or industry; usually, one held in and operated directly by the hand (or fixed in position, as in a lathe), but also including certain simple machines, as the lathe; sometimes extended to simple instruments of other kinds, [like a lens].

By extension, tool can refer to anything that helps a person carry out a job. For example, the tools I use to write these articles about language include a computer, the Google Ngram Viewer, and an assortment of reference books.

Shakespeare plays on two meanings of tool in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet.

Sampson and Gregory, characters in the employ of the Capulets, make jokes laced with sexual innuendo. When two men employed by the Montagues enter, Gregory says, “Draw thy tool! here comes [sic] two of the house of the Montagues.”

One meaning of tool common in Shakespeare’s day was “a weapon of war, especially a sword.” Another meaning for tool that the audience would have been aware of was “the male generative organ.”

In reference to a person, a tool is “a person used by another for his own ends; one who is, or allows himself to be, made a mere instrument for some purpose”:

Making a shocking statement of moral equivalence, Turness stated in 2006, “We have to ask ourselves, are we being the tool of terrorists or the tool of the government?”


The idiom “tools of the trade” refers to anything that used in a particular occupation to achieve an intended goal:

While the strategic goal of professional campaigning remains the same as it ever was—finding enough votes to win an election— the tools of the trade have undergone, and continue to undergo, a permanent technological revolution.

The expression “to down tools” means, “to refuse to work, especially because you are not satisfied with your pay or working conditions,” as in this headline:

Clinical interns threaten to down tools over allowances

To get back to the question that prompted this post, the reader’s brother is not wrong to refer to a tractor as a tool in the context of something used to perform a task.

Here, in an article about missionaries in Belize, the word tool is used with both meanings, “a handheld implement” and “a means of getting something done”:

Fortunately, Paul had shipped his tractor, bush hog, plows, tools and other farming implements to Belize. The tractor has proved to be an invaluable tool, especially with rock removal.

Note: Tool has other uses as a verb.

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4 thoughts on “Meanings of Tool”

  1. In the UK, the word ‘tool’ is sometimes used in a derogatory sense to describe a person who acts in a gregariously carefree and insulting manner.

    After exposure to such a person, it is not unusual to hear an affected individual mutter ‘What an utter tool.’

  2. I notice you left out the slang insult form of the word. See this quote from English Stack Exchange:

    “According to Green’s Dictionary of Slang, tool has several meanings. In the current context it would probably mean “a stupid, useless or socially inept person”. The first citation for this dates from 1656.

    I suspect that this meaning is derived from the first meaning under the headword “tool”, “the penis”, as a literal or figurative bodily organ (first citation 1553), as names for the reproductive organs are frequently employed as terms of abuse (can’t think why).

    The meaning of “unskilful workman” appears a little later, at 1698.”

  3. I think you sum it up: “By extension, tool can refer to anything that helps a person carry out a job.”

    Without the extension, tool may refer to a manual device. So what the reader is seeking is a “technical” or “official” definition of tool that limits it to a manual device and no such technical definition or authority for such a definition exists. “[O]nce and for all” the brother is right. And as the reader (probably unintentionally) allows, “connotatively” is all we’re dealing with. In a conceptual context a tractor is a tool. There is no denotative limit on the manual trait.

  4. I did pretty well for a number of years writing software tools. These were programs that helped my colleagues and me do our jobs. Like a tractor, the tools enabled us to pull our weight. The person who writes such code is sometimes called a “toolsmith.” The mild irony here is that I am fairly dangerous (read: inept, if you prefer) when using the harder kinds of tools—screwdriver, hammer, and so forth.

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