The ghosts of technology in today’s language
Yesterday, on Twitter, I asked:
I wonder sometimes what would be the oldest extant word based on technology no longer in use. Taping an interview? Dialing someone?
I received many more answers than I expected, although it soon became obvious how my rules were impossible to follow, even by me: What exactly is technology, and which technology ever truly goes away?
Scrolling (who remembers scrolls?) feels different than fonts (used more than ever, in a digital form directly evolved from a physical predecessor), and somewhere in between these would be a tablet — a new tech inspired by old one, although without a direct connection.
But despite (or maybe because) the fuzzy rules, it was fun to comb through the answers, and ponder how often technology hides in everyday language long past its own limelight. So, let’s check out some examples.
Note: The following will be very English-centric.
We dial a number — or dial someone — even though dials disappeared from phones decades ago. And we hang up even though there’s rarely a handset that actually needs to be hung up.
Both radio and TV stations still ask us to tune in, even though tuners don’t really exist in television any more (and in the radio, tuning is much more automatic, using buttons and programs rather than… another dial.)
(Side note: to tune in, someone needs to broadcast, which originally meant scattering seeds in a broad field, by hand. And even if you don’t broadcast, you can still telegraph your intentions… without the actual telegraph.)
The user interface component where you choose one of a few options is called radio buttons, based on old radio buttons you’d toggle to… tune in to different frequency bands.
(To add to an already massive confusion, the user interface component on a Mac that actually looks like old radio buttons is called “tabs.”)
People still talk about rolling down a window in a car, even though they don’t roll a circular handle — it’s the motor that does it today. (And you can still ask to crank up the volume, too.)
We still talk about rewinding video, long after we stopped using magnetic tape that needed to be wound and rewound. And yes, we also tape things (meaning: record them), and some of us get good enough to start filming things, often on a digital camera that never touched film. When you tape or when you film, you amass footage — although no longer measured in actual feet of film or tape length.
(Taping should not be confused with wiretapping, which used to mean a tap on an actual wire, and now largely outgrew it.)
In some places, a finished artwork is still called camera-ready, from the days it needed to be photographed in order to be reproduced. And the camera itself? The word means “room,” from when camera obscuras were room-sized. To think if earliest giant computers arrived first, they could be called cameras today… (And speaking of which, an interesting inversion: computer used to mean a person doing computing, before it became a term for a machine — a distinction once awkwardly preserved in two spellings: computer and computor.)
In a visual world, play button triangle refers to moving tape from one reel to another — more of those abstract symbols are documented here — and don’t even get me started on the save icon!
Many of today’s terms come from the nautical world. Taken aback used to mean a wind suddenly reversing, and your sailing ship going backwards. Bitter end refers to the bitts, where the end of a rope was attached (also see: at the end of one’s rope). Pooped? Originally: swamped by a following wave. And, on a good day you might have find yourself on an even keel, as your boat once was.
Some of these terms might still be in use, although here’s the kicker. As someone reported:
I’ve worked for 13 years in the modern maritime industry, and I can confidently assert (because I’ve asked them) that none of the modern maritime workers I’ve worked with even know that these terms came originally from their own field.
One of the most interesting examples is an album. A photo album was — still sometimes is — a physical item, but so was a music album once: early records were packaged with many records in one big book, each song occupying a whole side of a record. The word that meant a physical item evolved to mean more of a concept…
…but maybe not really! The word album itself comes with a Latin noun meaning “blank tablet.” And, today, there are once more multi-record vinyl albums, so maybe — excuse the pun — all of these things are just revolutions.
(A meta inversion: in a conversation a few people referred to older shellac records as vinyl records, and I called an old phonograph a gramophone. Of course, shellacking might be a good candidate, since shellac is no more in common use.)
Some people say catching you on the flip side originated from two sides of the record: you’d see someone later, after the record finished its current side and had to be switched to another.
And, one of my favorites: a record label — once a physical attribute of a physical artifact, now a faraway business concept.
Knots as a measure of speed comes from sailors using a knotted rope to determine a speed of ship. (Knots exist today, of course, but maybe aren’t used for that specific purpose.)
Horses do little that’s measured by horsepower (although that unit is slowly disappearing, too), and candela as a unit refers to the candle — candles still exist, of course, but we usually measure light output of more advanced technologies. Likewise, you can still be in the limelight without any actual limelight.
Burning the midnight oil comes from working late by a lamp literally burning oil. And gaslighting is particularly interesting — referring to vintage and forgotten technology, too, although abstractly so, the word itself based on a 1938 play called Gas Light.
(Speaking of horses, dashboard used to mean something very different: a barrier of wood or leather fixed to the front of a carriage to protect the driver from mud or debris “dashed up” by the horses’ hooves. And typewriter carriage harkened back to the horse carriage, although it was outlived by it — except in the extant technical term carriage return, or CR.)
We still talk about CC, coming from pen and typewriter carbon copies — either many pages interspersed with carbon paper, or later special paper with carbon backing that would duplicate itself during typing.
Typing itself is related to type (metal letters) through typewriting — we no longer often call onscreen letters “type,” although we still talk about typography.
And, on the modern keyboards, we still see Shift that does no physical shifting, and Backspace that does quite a bit more than just going back one space. They date back to the 1880s, but changed in 1980s as computers took over typewriters.
Slide decks or slideshows in your PowerPoint or Keynote consist of slides, originally physical objects which the projector (or magic lantern before it) used to slide into place in front of the source of light. (Yes, sometimes limelight.)
The world of typesetting is filled with probably as many historic terms as the nautical world, but the one that achieved widespread attention is uppercase to mean big letters, and lowercase for small letters — coming from two physical cases, one above the other, holding the type used for printing.
Then there is the story of stereotype and cliché, twin technologies whose names were adopted and evolved to mean something very similar.
And we scroll around on our computers, even though we barely remember an ancient technology of scrolls. (Funnily enough, in 1970s computing a word “roll” battled for dominance, too, meaning scrolling, and referring to pretty much the same item.)
Some terms are even more niche and specific, but nonetheless interesting. Priming the pump is an economic term meaning seed money or bootstrapping, coming from pouring liquid into a pump to expel the air and make it work, in the late 1800s. And, bootstrapping itself has vintage connotations.
People in the U.K. talk about it being cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey; the origins of that phrase are only partly technological, but wholly fascinating.
Cinderblocks no longer contain cinder. A cornerstone no longer refers to the the first stone set in a masonry foundation, guiding the orientation and placement of the whole building.
Teamsters originally drove teams of horses, now they’re driving trucks. Freelancers are people for hire, but no longer required to carry a lance. Original saboteurs wore noisy sabots and were generally noisy, interrupting work with constant labour disputes.
A computer directory harks back to a physical book. (Unless your computer calls it a folder, but those can still be found in an office supply store.) Similarly, people pencil you in — pencils still exist, although the term refers to a physical agenda that sees less and less use. Some people pen a novel, but on their keyboards. Or do bookkeeping without books designed to hold your finances. Or, still refer to their list of contacts as a rolodex.
And one of those things really goes back in time: Pen as a writing instrument dates from the proto-Indo-European word for “feather,” although though quill pens became obsolete two centuries ago. A clay pot (ostracon) shards were used to vote on banishment from ancient Athens, which morphed into ostracizing. Divan comes from a Sumatran word for “clay tablet” + “house.” (“I guess that’s like if we had an iPad chair and 4000 years later people were still calling it a padchair but the meaning of pad was completely obscured.”)
And even the very letter A: it original shape from 4 millennia ago was derived from an ox, early technology of castrated male cattle used for plowing, pulling carts, or threshing grain (and possibly also influenced threshold?).
And there are cases where we don’t have to go far at all. The very original question started from a recent word podcasting, peculiar in a few ways: the rare word here related to a commercial product, a product that feels ancient even though it is still being sold, and a device that has never been actually very good at podcasting to begin with.
But then again, what do you expect when you intersect a messy world of languages with the messy world of technology?