IMO, the yellow axe question on its face is about English. As I said in a comment under Mari-Lou A's question:

The question was about English. (Is there an English word that starts with Y and means the thing in this picture?") The answer did the almost impossible job of proving a negative. "There is no English word that starts with Y and describes the thing in this picture." the answer then went on to explain how a Swedish word crept in. If any future user can write a question which will lead to a comparable level of detective work about English, have at it! If any future user can come up with an English word that answers that question, I want to hear it.

Mari-Lou presented even more cogent reasons why the question is about English.

Moreover, with 1.5 billion or so people speaking some form of English, the large majority of which are non-native speakers, perhaps we should expand our territory from English usage to English misusage. To some extent, we already do, with tags for different varities of English, although I am not suggesting that a dialect is a misuse of English.

@Draakhond brilliantly summarized how English might have been misused in this case.

I don't want to debate the disposition of the YAQ -- Mari-Lou has done that -- only to suggest that our boundaries should not be so inelastic that serious, well framed questions that elicit brilliant answers can be easily dismissed as off topic.

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    English misusage, continued, becomes English usage. But it's uncomfortable in the interim :) . There's always been the special interest (or perhaps especially interesting) exception to something being off-topic. I don't have a ready answer to your question, except that it seems sensible to maintain a well-defined scope for what's on-topic and allow exceptions on a case-by-case basis. – Lawrence Aug 8 at 4:33
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    I totally agree with your final statement, probably because as a NNS I am often attracted by, let’s call them, “non-standard” usages. Unluklily the community doesn’t seem to be elastic enough yet for this issue. Here are a couple of recent examples where you can see users reactions, especially in the first case: : english.stackexchange.com/questions/449476/… - english.stackexchange.com/questions/458331/… – user070221 Aug 8 at 9:15
  • @user070221 are any of those questions which you linked to closed or put on hold? Are they locked? – Mari-Lou A Aug 8 at 9:23
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    @Mari-LouA - no, at least not yet. But they well represent, in my opinion the point the OP is trying to make. How much users are disposed to accept and deal with issues which represent usage instances (more or less common as they may be) without prejudices. – user070221 Aug 8 at 9:27
  • I think it is arguable whether it is on-topic. That is I think there are good arguments on both sides. If analogy can be used as an argument, on one side (contra) the question is like asking "Why did James Joyce use the word 'quark'". It's a question about provenance and art and artifact, which, while needing lots of English knowledge to solve, hits a lot of 'off-topic' reasons (POB, unclear, unanswerable, may not be about English, psychology, belongs on Puzzles.SE, etc). – Mitch Aug 8 at 14:42
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    But the question sure needs a lot of English knowledge (and if the answer were a weird English word, it would be very compelling to be on-topic here. And frankly the great answer makes it a general good thing here. So what if it doesn't do everything just right, it makes us all happy, doesn't hurt anyone, so let it stay. There aren't scads of "Here's a picture of me granddads last will and testament. What does this weird mark mean?" They'd all be run off the ranch immediately (as some past ones have been). – Mitch Aug 8 at 14:42

The part of the question that isn't about English is actually probably the part that most people found interesting about the question: What word was the creator of the ball thinking of?

You can see from the existing answers that many people were more interested in explaining how the ball came to be than in finding an English word that fit: the accepted answer suggests the picture is meant to represent the Swedish word yxa, and another highly upvoted answer mentions the Chinese word yuè. Other answers suggest that the creator of the ball simply made a mistake.

If we don't hold answers to this criterion, then the question becomes the extremely broad (and in my view, not particularly interesting) "What English words start with a Y and can be used in the description of this picture".

That said, I don't think the question is "off-topic" for this particular site so much as it is an example of a type of question that is problematic on any Stack Exchange site. It's a question about something that makes a lot of people feel curious, but that is pretty much impossible to answer definitively (and it would require special knowledge, not just ordinary expertise in some particular subject matter, to give a definitive answer). Nonetheless, it's accessible enough to make it easy to come up with a large number of speculative answers, many of which seem convincing enough to attract a fairly large number of upvotes. At the time it was locked, the question had 18 undeleted answers, and 8 deleted answers. (This doesn't imply that it was necessary to lock it, of course—"protection" can also be used to deal with questions that attract an excessive amount of answers, and regular users and diamond moderators can moderate low-quality answers to any questions.) Dan Bron's detective work is very impressive, but it seems to indicate that this is not in fact a question dealing with any kind of usage (not even "mis"usage) of English, so it's hard to see how additional answers from English speakers would be able to add useful information.

As you've said, there has already been debate about the YAQ. I don't think it's accurate to say that it was "easily dismissed as off topic".

You are right in your comment: the post asks people to come up with an English word that starts with Y and means the thing in the picture.

This is a puzzler, or what we call a “guessing game” question. This type of question is off topic on Stack Exchange sites.¹ Examples of guessing game questions: puzzlers, trivia questions, "help me remember the name ofs".

These are obviously a fun question category. They often attract a lot of attention. But Stack Exchange explicitly rejects that kind of question because Stack Exchange has a different goal in mind. Stack Exchange's goal is to "contain the same information as a library of reference manuals, in the form of millions of questions and answers".²

That is, EL&U is English experts building a reference library that tells you anything you might want to know about the technology we call the English language. Many types of question you might think are English language-related are actually off-topic on the site, starting with the common types identified in the online help:

  • proofreading
  • writing advice
  • how to improve my English
  • translation
  • naming things
  • literary criticism
  • basic questions that could be answered using a dictionary
  • questions that can have multiple answers, such as requests for ideas, opinions, or discussion
  • questions that are only for fun (we hate fun)

The yellow axe question, then, does not belong here because it is not a request for an expert answer about the English language as a technology. It's a puzzler/guessing game question that can have multiple answers.

Notes

  1. You might think that Puzzling might allow questions that incorporate such a thing. But they too explicitly refuse guessing games: "we explicitly don't want riddles because they could have multiple opinion-based answers, making them a guessing game."

  2. "The Wikipedia of Long Tail Programming Questions" by Joel Spolsky, founder and CEO of the Stack Exchange network.

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    These are all good reasons for it being off-topic... except for the point about not accepting riddles. Historically and currently half of the questions on Puzzles are riddles. Just take a look. – Mitch Aug 8 at 21:34
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    Riddles are explicitly on-topic on Puzzling (though you're right that they're not supposed to have multiple possible answers). – 1006a Aug 9 at 4:00
  • @1006a Looks like they have a meta question that needs updating. And as you point out, even the one site on the network which wants "fun" questions still only permits those which "have an unambiguous, clearly correct answer". – MetaEd Aug 13 at 18:02
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    I think the issue with this question (and a rare few similar questions) is that the asker expected there to be "an unambiguous, clearly correct answer" but because it was an error that answer turns out to be "there's no such word". I've seen a few sort-of similar questions that I thought would be unanswerable but turned out to have a good answer (like the "lanapeel" question) and others where the answer was "it's just a mistake". But it's almost impossible to know which is which before the question is asked. – 1006a Aug 13 at 18:40
  • @1006a I agree that's what the asker probably expected. Hypothetically, supposing there had been every expectation of an unambiguous, clearly correct answer, the question is still a guessing game. It's no different than asking for help solving 4-across on the latest NYT crossword puzzle, where the first letter is "Y" and the clue is "axe". – MetaEd Aug 13 at 19:10
  • @MetaEd - But there is, on EL&U, a tag specifically for such questions: single-word-requests. From the info page: Use this tag for questions that are about finding a single word to fit a meaning. While asking for a crossword puzzle answer might not fit the tag, it seems to me that "I'm looking for a word whose meaning fits this image and which begins with a Y" is perfectly on-topic. I will, however, agree that, even though the question is on-topic, the answer might not be. – Roger Sinasohn 17 hours ago

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