Not like in soccer, like in your living room.
February 10, 2018 7:12 AM   Subscribe

My wife is baffled that I call our powered device that uses both a vacuum and a rotating power brush to clean dirt off the floor a "sweeper" and not a "vacuum cleaner". I maintain that sweeper is a valid description of the device and sweeping is the process, even though the device uses motors and a vacuum to assist. She insists that only a broom or purely mechanical device with brushes or bristles can sweep, and vacuum cleaners vacuum and should be described as such. Dictionaries are not helpful. Please help us... clean up this disagreement.
posted by eschatfische to Writing & Language (47 answers total)
I personally call it a vacuum, but sweeper is also correct. If you asked me to get the sweeper, I'd know exactly what you're talking about.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:23 AM on February 10, 2018

I'm firmly on your wife's side in this. Caveat: I'm not a native speaker of English.
posted by Too-Ticky at 7:23 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

This is partly regional, I think. I moved from the east coast to the midwest. In the east, absolutely no one called a vacuum cleaner a "sweeper." Here in the midwest, I've heard it referred to as a sweeper quite often, though I do hear both.

Like your wife I was at first confused by people calling the device a sweeper because sweeping seemed to describe the action that a broom does. Now I like the term "sweeper." Which is to say, none of this makes sense inherently, it's all arbitrary and customary, like pop vs soda, sneakers vs tennis shoes and whether "Ok I'll let you go now" actually means "I recognize that you need to get off the phone" or "Man, I just want to get off the phone but I'm from the midwest."
posted by velveeta underground at 7:23 AM on February 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

This seems pretty regional -- I've lived almost entirely in southern California and the Northeast (exception being several years in Chicago) and I've never heard the term "sweeper" before.

Any powered device that you roll along the floor to remove dust and dirt from the floor is a "vacuum," or formally "vacuum cleaner."

But if Metafilter has taught me anything it's that there's a great deal of variation in English!
posted by andrewesque at 7:26 AM on February 10, 2018

I'm with your wife, I'm afraid. My concept of sweeping includes the smooth arc of the broom, etc., dragging across the surface. Whenever you "sweep" something metaphorically it implies this motion. "A clean sweep" "she swept the paper of the table" "he swept his brow with a bandana". You cannot sweep and also suck; if I say "swept the papers off the table" you don't picture them being sucked up into the air but rather pushed across the surface until they reach the edge. Even the sports usage to me implies this, it's basically person-as-broom, arcing across the field to gather up the ball and push it elsewhere. If it gets rid of dirt by scrubbing it loose and sucking it up, it's not sweeping.
posted by Diablevert at 7:27 AM on February 10, 2018 [4 favorites]

If you google “floor sweeper”, you get both powered and manual machines that look like this. It may add clarity to know that, dictionary definitions aside, there is such a thing as an industry term that is used commonly across companies. For example, “laptop” instead of “notebook” when describing a particular type of computer. And companies will engage taxonomy specialists to make sure they hit the sweet spot in using terms that the greatest number of people are familiar with.

That being said, a “sweeper” is understood to be a broom or the item I pictured above, and a “vacuum” to be a mechanical device that uses vacuum suction to assist in cleaning the floor. In a commercial context these all fall under the label “floor care”.

Anecdotally, I’ve called it a sweeper even though it’s a vacuum, so did the rest of my family while I was growing up (in the Midwest). But mostly I call it a vacuum.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:28 AM on February 10, 2018

In any case, you’re not wrong in terms of colloquial use. People use “sweeper” when they mean “vacuum”. In regard to the industry term, though, it’s a vacuum and not a sweeper.
posted by Autumnheart at 7:30 AM on February 10, 2018

To me, “sweeper” implies a non-electrical device like this.
posted by lakeroon at 7:34 AM on February 10, 2018 [19 favorites]

When I was a kid, we had a "carpet sweeper," which was a mechanical device that lived in the closet with the broom and could be used to clean crumbs off the carpet when you didn't want to lug out the heavy vacuum cleaner, which lived in the basement and was a production to use. I think they make electrical versions of that device, and I'd still call that a carpet sweeper. You have to empty the carpet sweeper really often, because it doesn't have a separate container to hold the stuff you sweep up. If a device has a bag or an outside area for storing the dirt you collect, then it's a vacuum, not a sweeper.

I bet this is regional, though.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:42 AM on February 10, 2018 [14 favorites]

I've also heard people call the powered device a vacuum sweeper, which is really the most accurate term of all.
posted by Longtime Listener at 7:43 AM on February 10, 2018

Agreed that this is regional. If you asked me for a sweeper I'd imagine a carpet sweeper like ArbitraryAndCapricious describes, which I remember from movie theatres. But a vacuum sweeper is definitely a vacuum because most of them rely on vacuum suction and a beater bar for sweeping (except shop vacs, those are purely vacuums).
posted by elsietheeel at 7:46 AM on February 10, 2018

I'm definitely in the 'vacuum cleaner' camp, raised in the Midwest and now living in the northeast.

A 'sweeper' to me is manual but still rotating, like this thing.
posted by geegollygosh at 7:47 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

I think you are both partially right, even though I also think of a sweeper as being purely a non-suction device and I think the hypothetical universal appliance salesperson would agree with me.

A vacuum with a sweeper on it (most vacuums) could properly be called a "vacuum sweeper," but that sounds kind of antiquated. I would imagine working sweeper technology was available and popular long before working vacuum technology, so people may have originally thought of it as a vacuum-assisted sweeper. But today, we don't consider the sweeper to be the more important part and most people don't remember the sweeper brush is even there until something gets tangled. The modern terminology seems to be "vacuum cleaner" and "upright vacuum."

So basically it's a bit old-timey to insist on calling it a sweeper.
posted by zennie at 7:49 AM on February 10, 2018

Just to muddy the waters, we have a canister vacuum with a "power head" (with the rotating beater brush thing) and a "sweeper" (which has a lower profile and no rotating brush, but is still a wide rectangle with wheels).

To my mind a sweeper is a thing you'd use on a smooth floor or industrial, low-pile carpet, because the rotating brush of your standard vacuum sends stuff flying in those scenarios. Sweepers designed for smooth floors may have a rotating head, but they also have a gasket of some sort that insures the stuff being swept is trapped and not just tossed behind the head. But I've heard the term "vacuum sweeper" and that specific usage is borne out by the attachment described above.
posted by fedward at 7:55 AM on February 10, 2018

FWIW, Wikiepdia has your back.
posted by kindall at 7:56 AM on February 10, 2018

Vacuum cleaners are definitely also called sweepers. I think it's maybe a little more old-fashioned, in addition to being regional?
posted by sldownard at 8:04 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Here (UK) so far as I know, mechanical sweepers were entirely obsoleted by vacuum cleaners long before anyone invented a vacuum cleaner with the form factor of a sweeper. Hence, I'm pretty sure nobody here would call a vacuum cleaner a sweeper (or indeed use the word at all). We wouldn't call a broom a sweeper either.
posted by quacks like a duck at 8:04 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

In California I don't even think there is such a thing as a sweeper. If you said it I'd think you meant a swiffer. What you're describing would be a fancy vacuum cleaner in my house.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:08 AM on February 10, 2018

This is a regional and somewhat antiquated colloquialism, much like "icebox" versus "refrigerator." I've mostly heard "sweeper" from older southerners.
posted by slkinsey at 8:08 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

My parents both called it "the sweeper" and "the vacuum cleaner," interchangeably. Their parents are from PA and MI/midwest generally. They also both said "ice box" and "refrigerator" interchangeably. They were the transition generation. Now nobody says sweeper or ice box anymore, and it's a shame and a loss to the language. Thank you for your efforts to retain this charming old word. Please keep using it.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:09 AM on February 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

Based on my experience in the restaurant industry a vacuum vacuums, a sweeper sweeps. If it vacuums it’s a vacuum, if it only sweeps it’s a sweeper.
posted by cyphill at 8:12 AM on February 10, 2018

From my own experiences growing up with a Great Grandmother born in 1899 calling it a "hoover" and a "sweeper", I believe you are both right.

Perhaps you two may consider "sweeping" this under the rug to avoid "sucking" the joy from your precious time together?

(I see what I did there!)
posted by Annika Cicada at 8:14 AM on February 10, 2018 [3 favorites]

In my dialect, a “sweeper” or “carpet sweeper” is a non-powered mechanical device that uses a roller brush but creates no suction. A “vacuum” or “vacuum cleaner” is a powered device that creates suction to clean a floor (and probably also has a roller brush, but I’d still call it a vacuum without one).

A carpet sweeper looks like this. I pretty much only see them used at restaurants, when they want to tidy up crumbs without making a lot of noise.

I was raised in the Southeastern US by parents from the Northeastern US.
posted by snowmentality at 8:17 AM on February 10, 2018

Remember when there were ninety ads per hour for The Shark?!? (It's a battery-powered carpet sweeper.) I bought one every time they showed up at BigLots. I usually am unmoved by anything "as shown on TV," but I could never resist The Shark.
posted by Don Pepino at 8:24 AM on February 10, 2018

I grew up in Texas. In our house, the vacuum cleaner was called the sweeper. My parents grew up in the midwest, so I'm not sure whether it was a regionalism they brought with them or one they picked up after they moved down south. My mother was also a homemaker who would tell you that her occupation was "homemaker." She kept house -- our house -- for a living. I mention this only to provide evidence of her expertise in all things housekeeping.

I remember consciously reminding myself to call a sweeper a "vacuum" when I moved out on my own, which was part of a larger overall effort to sound less Texan.
posted by mudpuppie at 8:38 AM on February 10, 2018

I have literally never heard of an appliance which uses suction called a "sweeper" -- that's a vacuum, man.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:39 AM on February 10, 2018 [7 favorites]

I grew up in the eastern US (Pennsylvania), and we both had the non-powered mechanical "sweeper" *and* called the vacuum a sweeper. (I still call it that in my head, tbh.)
posted by okayokayigive at 9:02 AM on February 10, 2018

I always thought that the sweeper was the person using the vacuum or whatever device to clean the floor of dirt and debris. I think The Who wrote a song about those people, "They Call Me the Sweeper" until the day I die.
posted by AugustWest at 9:24 AM on February 10, 2018

To me, “sweeper” implies a non-electrical device like this.

Lifelong New Englander and I agree with this, short for "carpet sweeper". There are motor-powered sweepers, but anything with a sucker is a vacuum, though we do have a special niche for "dust busters" and "dirt devikls which are smaller handheld vacuum things.
posted by jessamyn at 9:26 AM on February 10, 2018

We also called the vacuum cleaner the sweeper when I was a kid. My grandmom used to "run the sweeper,"
posted by interplanetjanet at 9:30 AM on February 10, 2018

I maintain that sweeper is a valid description of the device and sweeping is the process, even though the device uses motors and a vacuum to assist.

Not a native speaker of English, and all linguistic/usage issues aside, this argument is Wrong: I have not seen your particular device, but unless the brush is pushing the dust/dirt into a receptacle, it is not sweeping: it's moving the stuff around to help dislodge it from the floor and get it picked up by the vacuum, which is definitely not sweeping.
posted by Dr Dracator at 9:36 AM on February 10, 2018

I have done research by searching for mentions of the word "sweeper," with the intent of finding out how vacuums/sweepers have been advertised over the years. I present you with documentary evidence that you can present to your wife for the sole purpose of proving that she is flat-out wrong.

Before we begin, most mentions of the word "sweeper" in newspapers referred to street sweepers -- both the machines, and the people who operated them. These references go way back to the early 20th century. There are also a number of sports-related sweeper references, such as what you allude to in the post title, but also many references to the "Sweepers," a baseball team from Ohio, which I'll get back to in a minute. Also, "mine sweepers" pop up pretty often during the 20th-century war years.

But about what I was looking specifically for: The predecessor to what we know as the vacuum cleaner was the carpet sweeper (1915, Chicago), which did not use electricity and is similar to modern-day manual sweeper that several folks reference above. Here are two other ads from 1915: Chicago and Butte, MT. You can see in the text of this ad from 1916 (Canton, PA) that carpet sweepers became colloquially referred to as simply "sweepers."

The vacuum cleaner as we know it was invented in Ohio in 1908 and patented as the "Electric Suction Sweeper." The patent was bought by a Mr. Hoover, and the Hoover Electric Suction Sweeper Company was born. The term "sweeper" remained popular in advertisements with the devices variably referred to as "carpet sweepers" (1923, Minneapolis) and "vacuum sweepers" (1925, Pittsburgh). In fact, vacuums were advertised as "sweepers" as recently as 2013. That ad appeared in numerous papers, but they were all in Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee. So it's a term that's still in use, but it is apparently very regional.

And about the "Sweepers" baseball team that made up a large number of search results? They were a baseball team from Canton, OH, which was the home of the Hoover Electric Suction Company, and they started out as the company team. (More.)
posted by mudpuppie at 9:39 AM on February 10, 2018 [10 favorites]

I grew up in Massachusetts, and it's a vacuum cleaner. Maybe, if you're my grandmother (who spent about 20 years in the UK from the mid-30s through the mid-50s), it's a Hoover.
posted by Making You Bored For Science at 9:42 AM on February 10, 2018

Here's a Dropbox link to PDFs of the images I linked to above. They're hard to read as JPGs.
posted by mudpuppie at 9:45 AM on February 10, 2018

To add a weird twist, I grew up in a house where we had a canister vacuum AND an upright, electrical "stick" vacuum, the latter which my mother called the "electric broom," which I assumed was the category name until today, which when forced to think about it, I realize may have been the brand name or model line. The electric broom sucked (literally) and had one long rotating brush that curved around a cylindrical pipe thing. I think maybe this is what you're describing?

My mother would have said, "vacuum it up with the electric broom," please. It was only used on the bathroom's tile floors. Even though she used the word "broom," she would never have said "sweeper," and I'm hard pressed to think how something that does not sweep (and that you do not sweep from side to side with your hands/body) could be called a sweeper. I also have only sween something I would call a (carpet) sweeper in restaurants.

But I'd chalk it up to an old fashioned regionalism on your part, and you should apologize to your wife by offering to take her out in the Edsel.

posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 9:49 AM on February 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

A vacuum for me (OH). Although I did hear sweeper.

Anyone else finding that sweeper has lost all meaning in this thread? Say anything enough and it starts to sound weird.
posted by kathrynm at 9:50 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Born and raised in the northeast of the United States, have lived all over the country, and I've never heard "sweeper" to refer to a vacuum cleaner in my life. If I heard "sweeper" I would think it was referring to a broom or a Swiffer Sweeper that has a cloth. Definitely not anything electronic.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:03 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Born and raised in the south, have lived in the mid-Atlantic and New England (and abroad). If you came to my house and asked where the "vacuum" was, I'd point to our machine that creates suction and also has a rotating brush on the bottom. If you asked where the "sweeper" was, I'd probably look confused for a second then point to myself, possibly while miming using a broom. If I were trying to make a distinction between types of vacuums with and without that rotating brush, I'd probably fall back to the distinction between a canister vacuum and an upright, but that's probably more personally idiosyncratic, since I think canister vacuums can have a rotating brush attachment too, I've just never happened to own one in that configuration.
posted by solotoro at 10:19 AM on February 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Anecdata: In my house, growing up, a "broom" was, well, a broom, a "vacuum" was the large vacuum cleaner used on carpeted areas or rugs, and a "sweeper" was a small vacuum cleaner that was used on non-carpeted floors.

My parents are from the south, I grew up in Delaware. I have no idea if this usage is common to either area or idiosyncratic for my parents.
posted by darchildre at 10:27 AM on February 10, 2018

Perhaps this is apples to oranges, but how about street sweepers? They use (a) rotating brush(es) and suction.
posted by Larry David Syndrome at 11:18 AM on February 10, 2018

My grandmother, born in Kentucky in the 1930s, definitely refers to her vacuum as a sweeper and vacuuming as running the sweeper. My dad didn’t inherit the term and we grew up in Texas calling it the vacuum. Sweeper sounds old fashioned to me, like calling the third meal of the day supper.
posted by MadamM at 11:23 AM on February 10, 2018

I grew up with brooms and sweepers, but I prefer the terms broom and vacuum.

There is a lovely logic that goes along with the ideas that Diablevert has in their answer.

Mr. BlueHorse and I have decided that a broom works by sweeping--a human physical input for gathering and moving particles to one central place which are then pushed in some kind of carrier that you physically dump elsewhere-- the trash, outside, under the rug. The actions involve a pushing movement to gather the particles and a movement around the area in which particles are to be gathered. A mechanical broom wouldn't be much of an energy saver, because while the tool many gather particles, you still have to physically move the tool around the area to do so.

With a vacuum, the kinetic effort to gather the particles is mechanical as they are suctioned up, and the human physical input is in moving the tool around the room. The bag must be changed or the canister dumped. Therefore, if it sucks, it's a vacuum.

If a Roomba could regurgitate its contents without human assistance and quit getting stuck behind chair legs, around this house we wouldn't call it a sweeper or a vacuum, we would call it a Miracle.

Whatever you call it is just a regionalism, and there is no right or wrong term.

However, if you REALLY want to win this fight and have Mrs. Eschatfische agree with you that the item you use to clean carpets with is a sweeper, then I suggest for the next six months, you cheerfully come home three times a week, announce that you will be running the sweeper, and then do so. Day one, month seven, take her in your arms, look deep into her eyes, and whisper gently, "Honey, what do we call that item in the closet I use to vacuum with?" She'll know what to say.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:41 AM on February 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

Grew up in the midwest, and have never heard the device you describe called a sweeper -- sweepers were manual, mechanical devices. Once it had vacuum, it was a vacuum, although vacuums can have sweeper attachments.
posted by davejay at 12:14 PM on February 10, 2018

Just to throw in more regional evidence: "sweeper" = "vacuum cleaner"* is quite common in the Cincinnati metro area (includes SW Ohio and northern Kentucky). We even have a local chain or two of stores that bill themselves as "sweeper shops". They sell and repair vacuum cleaners.

(*as someone mentioned above, this seems to correlate with "supper" = "dinner", but it's not just older people that use these words.)
posted by mean square error at 2:24 PM on February 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

East coast born and raised and resident here, and I've never heard "sweeper" before, but I would assume someone meant "broom" or "non-motored" if I heard it used. Have only used vacuum or vacuum cleaner for the device. (And these days, I'm finding that Swiffer/Roomba are sometimes subbing for generic "broom"/"mop" or "vacuum.")
posted by TwoStride at 3:10 PM on February 10, 2018

ohioan, yes I have heard it called a sweeper interchangeably with vacuum, and if you asked me what a sweeper was I would say it was a vacuum cleaner and not any other type of floor cleaning device.
posted by katieanne at 5:10 PM on February 10, 2018

Oh, I was in no way trying to convince Mrs. Eschatfische to call it anything other than a vacuum, I was just hoping to convince her to begrudgingly accept my apparently old-timey, Midwestern terminology. I often call the early evening meal supper, too. Sometimes I'll even run the sweeper before supper. Thanks, everyone.
posted by eschatfische at 7:22 PM on February 10, 2018 [8 favorites]

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