The Linguistic Legacies of Technological Change

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.


Via LocksOnline
Via LocksOnline

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.

28 thoughts on “The Linguistic Legacies of Technological Change

  1. sevaan

    Reblogged this on A General Information Stop and commented:
    I often think about how we think about the video recorder, but it was really only mainstream for 20 years or so. All these technologies which have left such an indelible mark upon our societies are disappearing into the annals of history….


  2. It’s fun to think about all of the technological changes that have made so many words almost silly. I wonder if/when daily usage will catch up?

    As for me, I’m still struggling with the two spaces after a period. I learned to touch type on a manual typewriter and the only way to pass the secretarial speed test was to think word by word, not of each individual letter. Those double spaces come out if my thumbs automatically. I am trying to change, but when I’m deep in thought, I revert to my old habits. Thank goodness for “find and replace.”


    1. Yes to find and replace!

      Let me share that a very important and accomplished individual recently lectured me on the use of two spaces, saying it was mandatory. It was very awkward to correct this person I respect, but I did so. At least she accepted the lesson with grace.


    2. I imagine I will always struggle with the two space thing since I also learned to type on a typewriter. It’s so ingrained I want to pull my hair out when I try to change it. Find and replace is my friend. Oh, and indents instead of tabs. That one gives me fits also.


      1. Once you get used to one space, it’s actually easier. It’s more intuitive, really. The indent feature also becomes easier once you have your software settings to default the way you want. Imagine how great it would have been on a typewriter if the moment you did a full carriage return to start a new paragraph the typewriter had magically known to indent a new paragraph! Magic!


  3. Since I learned to type on a typewriter I also learned that two spaces were required after a period. When I started blogging it seemed to me that two spaces looked like too much, so I cut it down to one. I hadn’t realised that has become the standard until now. One reason why I love reading blogs. Thank you!


    1. Thanks! Yes, texting is an odd word–it really just states what the content is, not the vehicle of conveyance–and it gave us the unpleasant hybrid word that replaces the “t” with an “s”.


  4. These are fun. I still tell my husband (master of the remote control in our home) to “rewind it” when I want to see something again on a show we’ve Tivo’d. I suppose I really mean, “back it up” or “replay it.” But I will always think of the old VHS tapes needing to be rewound. Now, when it comes to the interviews that I “tape” when writing articles, I can still say “rewind” because I actually DO still tape record them using cassettes in my ancient transcribing machine. Man, now I feel old.


    1. I’m glad you found them fun! My son and I enjoyed talking about them yesterday morning when I drove him to school before posting, and yesterday afternoon he came home with “taping,” which I used for awhile with the TiVo before finally saying “recording.”

      I think we use “rewind” as well, even though nothing is actually wound. I switched a few years ago to a digital voice recorder yet will still ask someone occasionally if it’s okay to “tape record” them. 🙂


  5. My husband and I always refer to music we want as albums – never CDs or mp3 files. We talk of so and so’s album and I think we actually see an image of a large LP in an artfully done jacket. We talk about taping something even when we are obviously using digital equipment. Too old to change these lingering lexical definitions.


    1. Well, LPs are back with a vengeance. Audiophiles–mostly in their teens and twenties–have embraced them. Bands like to release music on LP along with other formats in part to showcase the art, and if you see a band perform on a late-night talk show, the host more often holds up an LP nowadays.

      Of course the word “record” is associated with an album/LP, which is odd because a cassette or CD or mp3 is also a recording. You still hear a new artist has a “hit record,” even though it’s unlikely LP sales drove that success!


  6. Pingback: The Linguistic Legacies of Technological Change...

  7. What an entertaining post Patrick – lots of food for thought there. 🙂 I wonder if ‘the young’uns’ know what was originally meant by a ‘carbon copy’ of something? I suppose today they probably think it has something to do with global warming…

    My seven-year-old son regularly makes me feel ancient with his alarmingly up-to-the-minute attitudes to technology. I had a conversation with him yesterday where I happened to mention that when I was his age the internet hadn’t been invented yet. He stopped dead, staring at me in horror and cried “So how did anybody KNOW anything in those days then?”

    It could’ve been worse I suppose – he also once asked me if they “still had dinosaurs when grandad was my age.”


    1. “Carbon copy” is a great one; do they even know what “cc” stands for in an email?

      The Internet story is both amusing and a bit sad; hate to think that books will become equated with dinosaurs!


  8. I’m not sure if I like this post Patrick. The only thing you managed to do is make me feel incredibly old! lol. Two spaces. My daughter & I have these issues come up in our writing room. Her being 27 she does things the “new way”, me being 47 I do things the old way. But I try to keep an open mind & remember that we no longer have to rub rocks together to create fire & milk come’s in plastic containers. (ha lol) ~ For a real generational gap, just pop into our writing room when my son’s in there doing his homework & spending time with us. {ages} 17-27-47- This is what we call~ Chaos or “My way is right!” 😉 Great post sharing now 😉


    1. Well, what’s interesting is that your daughter is doing things the “old” way, historically. The two-space rule was, in the span of time, an anomaly related to the emergence of the manual typewriter, with it being one space before that innovation and now.

      Fascinating age gaps you have among the three of you! (And thanks for sharing!)


  9. You know, it just occurred to me that we started out “calling” someone on the phone, went to “dial” & now with voice command well…we’re back to calling aren’t we? So we ended up we’re we started.


  10. Ha! I had to look that one up, when I came across it in Bring up the Bodies. 🙂 I doubt we’ll ever get to use it, Patrick. Unless…does getting thrown off a balcony (or the threat of it) count?

    Weird fact about Russo I didn’t know. Hard to believe he wrote all those looong word books by hand, and not on a typewriter, at least. But whatever works!

    The writers that insist on using the two spaces used to drive me nuts. Now I just use find/replace prior to reading their work. Gotta love that feature. And all the many wonderful things Word makes easier.

    This was a fun. Glad I popped in today to read!


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