Catch us on a rainy weekend afternoon, and you’ll probably find my son and me busy spreading Lego over the living room floor. It’s easier to see it that way.
Typically, we will build spaceships. I’ll commence work on a solid chassis on which to hang all the fancy bits—the wings, superfluous for space flight but essential for seven-year-olds—and the greebles that make everything look, you know, more spaceship-y. My son will cast around for people-bits, with which to fabricate a spaceship pilot and perhaps a co-pilot. They will all need light sabers, of course. And control panels that move.
So each of us has a clear idea of which pieces we’re after, and two enormous plastic crates full of Lego from which to extract them.
It’s a scene that is replayed by kids and parents everywhere. And it’s the starting point for a unique quirk of language: Lego nomenclature.
Every family, it seems, has its own set of words for describing particular Lego pieces. No one uses the official names. “Dad, please could you pass me that Brick 2x2?” No. In our house, it’ll always be: “Dad, please could you pass me that four-er?”
And I’ll pass it, because I know exactly which piece he means. Lego nomenclature is essential for family Lego building.
“Dad, I’m building a roof for the medical pod, but I need a hinge-y bit to make it open up. You know, one of those four-er flat hinge-y bits.”
Raimi often builds spaceships but has never referred to the pieces by name, until prompted by his father—at which point he reveals that he possesses names for all of them in his head.
Yes I do know. I’ll keep my eye out for one, I say. And do you want this flat groovy piece to go on the top there, behind your lasers?
“Oh, thanks Dad.”
Then, when another seven-year-old came round for tea after school one day, I overheard the two of them, busy in the spaceship construction yard that used to be our living room, get into a linguistic thicket.
“Can you see any clippy bits?” my son asked his friend. The friend was flummoxed. “Do you mean handy bits?” he asked, pointing.
“Yes,” replied my boy. “Clippy bits.”
Of course! This language of Lego isn’t just something our family has invented; every Lego-building family must have its own vocabulary. And the words they use (mostly invented by the children, not the adults) are likely to be different every time. But how different? And what sort of words?
Hence, a survey. I asked fellow parents to donate their children for a few minutes, and name a selection of Lego pieces culled from the Lego parts store.
Our small, international cast (half Brits, half Americans) is made up of four children. First, my seven-year-old son Barney, who surveyed the list as if it was another piece of homework. His friend, Jem, also seven, went through the list and then wanted to do it again. Five-and-a-half-year-old Max didn’t hesitate to name every piece. Six-year-old Raimi often builds spaceships, but has never referred to the pieces by name, until prompted by his father—at which point he revealed that he possessed names for all of them in his head.
So that’s how we discovered that a “cylinder one-er” can also be known as “Coke bottles” or a “golden wiper.” Or that an “upper” is also a “bow” or a “cannon,” or a “four-studded upward slope.” And that a “light saber” is a “light saber” no matter where you live or how much Lego you have.
And most of the time it, it all works fine. Within families, the communication is clear, and a clippy bit is most clearly a clippy bit. Even if there are three different kinds of clippy bit in one model, we’ll know exactly which one we’re all talking about at the time. Lego, like language, benefits from context.
A Common Nomenclature for Lego Families
|A bent four-er||Ladder without steps, because it’s like air vents||Silver ramp||Six-studded clippy piece|
|Round flat one-er||Rounds, because they’re round||The bronze jewel||Stud|
|A flat clippy piece||Claws||Golden snapper||Clippy piece|
|A two-er with only one bobble||Eye||Gold board||A two-pieced one stud|
|A flat clippy bit||Claws||Blue snapper||Hand piece|
|A rectangular one-er||One-piece||Redder||One-brick piece|
|Flat square one-er||Squares||A green stander||Squared stud|
|Cylinder one-er||Coke bottles||Golder wiper||Round one-brick|
|A joining bit||Eye||Blue tunnel||One-sided clippy bit|
|Spinny bit||Fan||Target||Spinny piece|
|Flat one-er with no bobble||Gold, because they look like gold||Flatpot||One-stud flat piece|
|Flat clippy piece||Rollers||Silver roller||Car mirror piece|
|Groovy bit||Air vents||Jail snail||Grill piece|
|T-shaped joiney thing||T-space||Small ships—they have wings, you know||Three-poled piece|
|Light saber handle||Light saber—we have them||Light saber||Gray light saber handle|
|The piece that goes on top of the spinny piece to make it spin||Burger bottom, because I have SpongeBob Legos and those were the bottoms of the crabby patties||Surrounder||Spinny piece that goes on the square bit|
|An upper piece||Bow—that’s what they call the front of a boat||The cannon||Four-studded upward slope|
|Two-er hole-y bit||Connectors||Double cannon||Two-studded slotty piece|
|Lego crystal||Gems||The jaguar’s jewel||Diamond piece, yellow|
|Four-er||Four-dot square||Lego piece||Four-studded brick|
|Microphone||Hose two, because we have a different hose||The gun||Blaster piece|
|Upper piece||Mountain ledge||The slide||One-studded thin slopey piece|
|Three-er||Rectangle||The blocker||Three-studded thin piece|
|Light saber blade||Other light saber part||Saber stick||Pink light saber blade|
|A piece you clip wheels on||Wheel connector||Twister||Small wheel axle|
|Wing piece||Wing||The ground||Aeroplane wing piece|
|Fire piece||Flame||Fire coral||Fire piece|
|L-shape||Slug, because it looks like a slug||The seat||Four-studded book piece|
|Six-er||Six-piece rectangle||Blue stander||Six-studded piece|
|Wing piece||Tail rudder||The sword||Aeroplane tail piece|
|Control set||Computer; I have the same piece||The control||Aeroplane control panel|
|An attach-any-side piece||Fire hydrant||Four blaster||Five-studded single piece|
|A piece that you can clip something on the side||One-hole fire hydrant||First cannon||Two-studded side piece|