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What Is an Umbrella Term?

By Alicia Sparks
Updated May 23, 2024
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An umbrella term, or a hypernym, is a word or phrase used to generally, rather than specifically, describe a group of varying but identifiably related subjects. People in various professions, social circles, and age ranges use umbrella terms. The word “umbrella” often precedes words like “company” and “brand,” though the entities under these umbrellas don’t have the same relationships as those under umbrella terms. Although the two phrases often are used interchangeably, umbrella terms usually differ from blanket terms. This is because umbrella terms group together terms with specific and express similarities, and blanket terms don’t always provide many details about the terms they group together.

It’s common for people to use umbrella terms in both professional and casual, or layman, situations. For example, the word “psychosis” is an umbrella term that covers various abnormal mind conditions that cause patients to lose contact with reality on some level. Psychiatrists might refer to the specific psychosis among themselves and eventually with the diagnosed patient. Yet, it’s common for regular civilians to use the word “psychosis” and understand that it refers to a mental health condition that has specific similarities to the rest of the conditions within its group.

Similarly, “intellectual property” is an umbrella term used to describe an assortment of intangible properties, such as music, writing, and art. During a specific professional or legal situation, professionals understand “intellectual property” to mean the specific catalog or music or book in question. On the other hand, people can say “intellectual property” and anyone, industry professionals and regular citizens alike, can understand the phrase to refer to intangible assets.

Many times, “umbrella” is paired with entities larger than a simple grouping of subjects. For example, phrases like “umbrella company” and “umbrella brand” are used to describe one “parent” entity that covers all the other smaller entities. Several small companies might operate under one larger umbrella company. Likewise, a popular umbrella brand might own and oversee several other brands. Since the smaller entity might have nothing in common with the larger one other than ownership, phrases like “umbrella company” and “umbrella brand” aren’t similar to the meaning of the phrase “umbrella term.”

Due to their similar definitions, it’s easy to confuse an umbrella term with a blanket term. Yet, where umbrella terms cover subjects with clear similarities, blanket terms make no promises on the degree of similarities among their subjects. For example, the term “R&B music” is a blanket term that covers genres like hip-hop, soul, and rap. Even though people know, or have general ideas, about the genres of music the term “R&B music” references, types like soul and rap are too different to be considered under an umbrella term. Still, if a person uses the phrase “blanket term” when “umbrella term” is more appropriate, it’s likely the listener or reader will still understand the meaning or perhaps not even recognize the mistake.

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