Recently I was corrected by someone because I used the word motor to describe an internal combustion engine. In my world, the two have always been interchangeable but it got me thinking. Is there a right word to use?

Motor Definition

n. Something, such as a machine or an engine, that produces or imparts motion.

n. A device that converts any form of energy into mechanical energy, especially an internal-combustion engine or an arrangement of coils and magnets that converts electric current into mechanical power. (American Heritage Dictionary)

Engine Definition

n. A machine that converts energy into mechanical force or motion.

n. Such a machine distinguished from an electric, spring-driven, or hydraulic motor by its use of fuel. (American Heritage Dictionary)

If you take a good long at the above definitions you can see a pattern. All engines are motors, but not all motors are engines. That distinction is only for those motors that convert energy into force or motion by using fuel.

How did we end up arguing?

Well, because we are human and arguing over minutiae is a daily occurrence. The other reason is ambiguity in publications. Take the quote below from an article discussing the difference between a motor and an engine.

“Although laymen often use the words “motor” and “engine” interchangeably, from a technical point of view, an engine uses fuel to create heat that it converts into motion, while a motor uses electricity to produce motion. Historically, an engine is technically any machine that converts energy into force, such as a catapult, according to”

Statements like the preceding only add fuel to the proverbial fire. In trying to force a very narrow definition of motor they lost sight of the actual meaning.

It’s been muddy since day one.

The definition has been muddy and mixed since day one. The automobile was originally called a motor car, we have motorcycles, motorboats, and motor shows. Want to really go crazy, a modern locomotive has both an engine and a motor. The diesel engine produces the force that turns a generator producing electricity that it pushes to electric motors to drive the wheels.

What does it all mean?

Nothing really. Call it a motor, call it an engine and I bet the person you are talking to knows what you are describing. If they correct you they are probably an asshole and you don’t that kind of negativity in your life.

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William Connor

As the Editor, William is responsible for all the good, the bad, the ugly and the indifferent that happens at 4WAAM. William brings a wide range of experience to this role. He also wields a freely shared...

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