It is an annual obsession of ours: What new technological words have been added to the dictionary? When did “email” make it in? How about “tweet”? Of course, making the dictionary may insure a word immortality, but it doesn’t guarantee continued cultural dominance. I use the word “fax” nowadays about as much as I say “defenestration.” (Saying the latter word is far more fun, although I can’t speak from experience about the actual act.)
More interesting than when a handful of lexicographers decide to expand a dictionary are the broader impacts of technology on the way we communicate. Take the act of writing, for example. Our mental creative process differs between pen and keyboard, as Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Russo knows. He still has to write the first draft of novels by hand, because that’s how he always did it, but he can write a screenplay on a computer because he didn’t take up that form until after he was comfortable with a keyboard.
But let me return to the lexicon for a moment. Let’s consider words, associated with certain technology-driven products, that no longer apply but are still in use. Here are some examples:
We often say we’ll “call” somebody on the phone–itself a legacy of when we would literally raise our voices and shout for someone–but you still occasionally hear the verb “dial” used when referring to placing a phone call. (“Have you recently been injured in an auto accident? Dial 1-800-555 SCAM for a lawyer who will get you the money you deserve!”)
That verb is a legacy of the earliest phone models–of which some of us of a certain age recall–that had dials, rather than “touch tone.” (Many automated answering systems now accommodate voice commands in part to handle the small pocket of technology resisters still using dial phones.)
Fun fact: There are other legacies related to the phone dial. The two most populous cities in the U.S.–New York and Los Angeles–were given the area codes 212 and 213 because they were easier to dial, the lower numbers requiring the index finger to travel less distance. The emergency number 911 was a logical choice because the last two digits could be dialed quickly, but the first one was unlikely to be dialed by accident.
Here’s another legacy of the old-fashioned telephone. For the first decades of its existence, a phone literally rang, when a small bell in the phone was repeatedly struck with a hammer. I remember in the early 90’s when a brand-new market emerged, the “ringtone.” I downloaded to my cutting edge “flip phone” a cheesy beep-version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” How delightful that a modern, digital service incorporated a word associated with a technology as old as metallurgy.
ROLL (DOWN OR UP)
Have you ever had a passenger in your car ask if they can “power-lower” their window? More likely, they asked if they could “roll down” the window. My 15-year-old son can still remember his mother’s 1995 base-model Ford Taurus, which had hand cranks that manually raised and lowered the window. (He also remembers being frustrated that he was too small to reach the handle when seat-buckled.) Now even the least expensive automobiles have power windows. Yet we still “roll” them up and down.
I began musing on this topic yesterday when someone forwarded me a Slate column bemoaning the fact that many, many people not only still place two spaces after a period, they insist it is mandatory. The column by Farhad Manjoo points out that all style guides call for one space. The brief two-space period in our history was the legacy of manual typewriter type using momospaced type (like Courier), where each letter takes up equal space. With all of that white space on the page, additional space after a period aided reader comprehension. But fonts are justified now–the “i” in “justified” just now takes up less space than the “u” or the “e”–so we have returned to the more logical one space. Well, most of us have. (In defense of resisters, I can remember as a freelance writer in the early 90’s encountering editors whose submission guidelines mandated two spaces.)
Another legacy of the manual typewriter is our QWERTY keyboard, so named because of the first six letters of the top row. As I remember well from the manual typewriter I learned to type on, when you depressed a key on such a device, a long arm with the letter on the end flew toward the page and struck the back of an ink ribbon. If you typed two letters quickly after one another, the arms might collide and stick.
The QWERTY keyboard, adopted in the 1870’s, actually slows down our typing. (It also helped us out with rarely typed letters like “q,” because you required great strength and dexterity to strike a “q” with your left pinky finger hard enough to force that arm up such that it would leave an clear ink impression on the page.) A far better keyboard was patented in 1936, and while some computer operating systems today can be enabled to work with it, QWERTY survives as our default.
In You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier writes that technology is not some magical spirit that always advances in the most efficient fashion. It is more like evolution, a process of fits and starts that aren’t always logical. As new systems build on the old–Windows on top of DOS, for example–legacy bits and pieces of the original survive, like a human appendix.
Can you think of some technological legacies that have survived, in our language or in our everyday use of technology? I’m particularly curious to hear examples from my many non-U.S. readers.