So something that has caused slight annoyance is the term "micro" applied to other than physical/chemical contexts. E.g. microbreweries.

Upon thinking about the word, my own impression is that "micro" is a scientific term and thus it's "more precise" quantity. Particularly, it refers to a portion that's 10^{-6} of the main measure (e.g. microgram of a gram).

But microbreweries aren't "exact" like that. So why do they need scientific terminology? Is it just heuristic application of "cool terms" that someone didn't think had proper meaning in some other fields?

"Small" on the other hand is a more rounded notion of something being "small relative to something bigger", but it doesn't say anything about the scale.


This is a classic case of the difference between linguistic definition and semantic definition. To be frank, this is no different to using the prefix Mega to mean Big.

Ultimately, when we talk about grams (for instance), we're used to hearing kilograms (1k grams) and milligrams (1/1k grams) for things like bodyweight and medication concentrations respectively. These are terms that we understand and therefore don't carry any semantic connotation beyond their explicit meaning.

Micro and Mega on the other hand; these are terms that we only hear every so often. Semantically, the public see these terms as meaning REALLY small and REALLY big respectively.

Microbrewery is little more than a marketing term to mean REALLY small brewery. Smaller than even Small, which is passe, but Micro; well that must be cool.

The public on the other hand almost never hear Giga or Pico or Tera or Peta as prefixes (although that's changing with computer terminology becoming mainstream) but it's important to note that these prefixes generate an emotional connotation as much as a conceptual one in most minds that only hear the terms every so often. In that sense, their semantic usefulness becomes obvious.

To specifically answer your question, YES. It's just the heuristic application of cool terms, but the second part is not necessarily true. The person who came up with the term may well have understood what the precise meaning should have been but the reality is that they would have also known that most other people would not. The continuing use of this prefix in other applications then just adds to the semantic use of the word, and the situation becomes self-perpetuating.

In short, marketing people have a lot to answer for in terms of the misapplication of language.

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  • There's nothing malicious or unreasonable about using the flexibility that English affords. It's certainly not a misapplication. No need to get accusatory. – Veedrac Mar 10 '18 at 11:56
  • Not getting accusatory; merely pointing out that questions like this wouldn't come up if people kept to an applied definition. – Tim B II Mar 10 '18 at 12:12

I'm not sure this isn't a case of science purloining, if I may gently and chafflingly put it so, the use of a word which in Classical Greek just means 'little' and has been used in non-scientific contexts since at least the Late Middle Ages, as in 'microcosm' - the world of human nature as distinct from nature as a whole.

You cite, quite properly, the precise, quantifable meaning of 'microgram' but not all scientific uses of 'micro' are anywhere near so exact : 'microbiology', 'microchip', 'microclimate', 'microscope'.

But all this aside, I see and endorse your point. A 'micro-brewery' is just a small brewery : but 'small brewery', unlike 'micro-brewery', sounds boring and uncool.

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