Signal as an adjective and its pairings
January 21, 2021 7:31 AM   Subscribe

Is "signal" used to mean 'notable' or 'prominent' commonly paired with any words beside achievement, accomplishment or failure?

And if you did see it in an uncommon pairing, would it scan or seem like a mistaken usage?

This is for a potential business name that plays on the double meaning with signal as in radio signals.
posted by Sockdown to Writing & Language (17 answers total)
If I saw that, I'd assume they meant "signature" instead.
posted by emelenjr at 7:44 AM on January 21

You can definitely have a signal success (also commonly used in a punny sort of way, as seen in the title of this painting), triumph, disaster... and probably more.

As to uncommon pairings... Collins observes "You use signal to describe a success or failure when you are emphasizing the fact that it has occurred and are indicating that the consequences are significant"; it would probably throw me if used in a pairing with a noun that wasn't a synonym (however loose) for achievement, success or failure.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 7:48 AM on January 21

I'd say that 'signal failure' is unusual, at least in British English, as it's easily read as something that disgruntles rail commuters. The other two uses are the only ones that I can think of, except perhaps 'signal feat'.
posted by pipeski at 7:50 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

"Signal honor," not quite synonymous with "accomplishment." Accomplishment is doing the thing; honor is getting recognized for it.

I do think the word is limited to fairly rote settings. I'd be weirded out if I saw this meaning outside them.
posted by humbug at 7:58 AM on January 21

I don't know how many people would recognize the double meaning, but I still think it works. For example, the phrase Signal Performance has a nice double meaning to my ear.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 8:01 AM on January 21

I'm aware of that meaning, but it feels a little "foreign" or archaic to me and I don't think most people I know would recognize that meaning. I think it's more likely to be understood as "Signal(ing) accomplishment" ie, "hey look! accomplishment!" if anything.

(I'm in the US, east coast)
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:08 AM on January 21 [3 favorites]

I agree it sounds a bit antique. I've got the 1913 edition of Webster's on my computer which includes these examples:
1. Noticeable; distinguished from what is ordinary; eminent;
remarkable; memorable; as, a signal exploit; a signal
service; a signal act of benevolence.

As signal now in low, dejected state As erst in
highest, behold him where he lies. --Milton.
This suggests to me that its usage has become more fixed and limited. If used in both senses of the word, I'd probably pick up on it, but I suspect not everyone would.
posted by adamrice at 8:36 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

To me personally it'd be off, and after a bunch of googling for exact phrases I think most people won't get it. Even "signal failure" shows up more often as part of a verb phrase ("to signal failure") or problem with signals.

OTOH, Merriam Webster and American Heritage both list the adjective meaning without notes like "archaic" appended.

If the business name's primary meaning makes sense, I don't think it's the worst thing to have a sort of stealth second meaning.
posted by mark k at 8:44 AM on January 21

OED cites since 1900:

1903 A. D. Hall Soil vii. 169 Inoculation with soil from a field which has previously grown the crop..has often proved a signal success in reclaiming the poor heath lands of East Prussia.
2000 N.Y. Times Bk. Rev. 23 Jan. 26/2 This gathering of data is a signal achievement.
1903 Jrnl. Amer. Oriental Soc. 24 75 The saint who smote the dragon was..a signal hero.
2000 I. Carr et al. Jazz (ed. 2) 297/2 Non-stop improvising excitement from a signal player of the current free-music generation.
1908 Independent (N.Y.) 20 Feb. 423/2 The doggerel conversation of young the signal sound of the spring wind of love.
1991 K. Hafner & J. Markoff Cyberpunk 333 They were disappointed to see the witnesses weren't wearing pocket protectors, which they believed to be a computer nerd's signal appurtenance.
posted by mahorn at 8:48 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

The usage you describe is uncommon and jarring in modern English. At best it will be read as stuffy and pretentious, at worst it will seem like an ignorant mistake.

posted by SaltySalticid at 9:14 AM on January 21 [2 favorites]

Having never encountered the phrase until now AFAICR, I would have found even "signal accomplishment/failure" momentarily jarring (if comprehensible) in prose. In a business name, you have more creative leeway, but there will also presumably be even less context to, uh, signal that you intend the uncommon adjectival form.

If the business name is something like "Signal $widget" or "Signal $service," I wouldn't be put off, but I'd probably assume "Signal" was just being used as a generic proper noun/brand name. It wouldn't read as mistaken usage, but I wouldn't realize it was meant to be clever, either.
posted by wreckingball at 9:58 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

As someone who likes archaic words I think that even I would find it dubious. I appreciate the idea, but I think this one is a bit too far out of the parlance and will lead to more questions than "ahh... I get it!" moments. If the extra meaning is only a bonus, that's fine, but if you're designing the business identity around it, it would probably be too much to ask of people.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 10:19 AM on January 21

I think you're fine playing on a double meaning, but only because no one will spot it.

Literally the only way I see this usage any more is in "signal honour", and in those cases it's a joke about pomposity or Victorian English or similar.
posted by caek at 11:10 AM on January 21

To answer your first question, I did a corpus search and came up with some other nouns that sometimes follow "signal" used adjectivally. None of these are common, but they do exist. They are in order of frequency. "Events" is definitely talking about non-electronic events; I checked the in-context corpus results.

posted by Mo Nickels at 11:29 AM on January 21 [1 favorite]

I appreciate everyone's feedback! And the exemplars.

I'm on the fence about it for the reasons you all gave, but if I do go this route will pick one of the more subtle ones that sound technical rather than archaic.
posted by Sockdown at 12:19 PM on January 21 [1 favorite]

If this is British English, signal X (with X being, generally, a landmark event sort of word) is unusual but not archaic, and I think is generally understood. You would find it in the newspaper. You would probably not use it much when speaking, though it isn’t out of the question.

I have to say I like the double meaning of ‘signal strengths’ from Mo Nickels’ post...
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 12:37 PM on January 21

Signal Peptides
posted by TheCavorter at 9:50 AM on January 22

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