Meanings of Tool
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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