Have you ever noticed that many terms we use for new technologies are surprisingly old-fashioned?
Mark Lander of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, recently reminded me of the linguistic ghosts that haunt our modern gizmos. In fact, his email message was written on a "template," a word that dates to metal plates used in woodworking and metal fabrication. And he might have "cc'd" someone else, an abbreviation for the typewriter-era term "carbon copy."
In fact, your computer keyboard is a museum of antiquated words. We hit the "return" and "shift" keys, respectively, because, on typewriters, the carriage returned to its left position to begin a new line and the entire letter assembly shifted to make capital letters. We hit "Command X" and "Command V" to cut text from a document and then paste it somewhere else, just as editors once used scissors and glue to cut and paste type.
Such fossil terms lurk in other technologies as well. Even though we now initiate a phone call by punching buttons, we still speak of a "dial tone" and "dialing a number," terms that go back to the circular dial on rotary phones. And we still "hang up" the phone, derived from crank-activated wall phones with handsets that were hung up on hooks.
Even though the display panel on our car glows with a massive array of electronics, we still call it a "dashboard," a term for a piece of wood on the front of a horse-drawn wagon that kept mud and water from dashing up on passengers.
Likewise, the computer term "cookie" for an encrypted message derives from the fortune cookie, which harbors a hidden prognostication. "Trojan horse" (malware that sneaks into your computer posing as legitimate software) alludes to the ancient Greeks who tricked the Trojans by hiding in a wooden version of Secretariat disguised as a gift.
We describe content on a website that's underneath the visible screen as being "below the fold," a reference to the fold in newspapers. To see this material, we "scroll down," like ancient scholars examining a roll of papyrus.
Why do we use old terms for new stuff?
Modern technologies are scary. So applying familiar terms to these complex gadgets reassures us that they're not that different from our old devices.
When airplanes were first invented, for instance, they were terrifying. This fear was mitigated by giving their parts and personnel well-known nautical names: cabin, bulkhead, galley, boarding, crew, pilot, captain and steward.
But for some reason, "anchor" didn't make it.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.