Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Technology is Dead, but the Words Linger On

In my earlier post I talked about listening to a "book on tape."  It wasn't really on tape, of course -- I was listening to the book on CD. I haven't listened to a book on a cassette tape in over a decade. But the expression "books on tape" lingers on, despite the extinction of the actual technology.

There are lots of other words and expressions that have far outlived the original technologies that they refer to. Have you recently "cc'ed" anyone on an email message? That expression refers to "carbon copy" -- a method for making duplicates of typed manuscripts. The typist would insert a layer of carbon paper (coated in dry ink) between two sheets of paper and -- mirabile dictu -- the typewriter would produce identical text on both sheets of paper!

Carbon paper -- it's a messy as it looks

Carbon paper was already on the way out even when I was young -- superseded by photocopiers. Another holdover from the typewriter era is the "carriage return."  This originally referred to slapping a lever whenever the typewriter got to the end of the line, flinging the carriage (the cylinder holding the paper) back to the beginning of the line, while at the same time rotating the cylinder to pull up a new blank line on the paper (clever, huh?)  Typewriters have vanished, but the carriage return (or <cr>) lives on in their digital descendents.  [At this point I should mention that I was required to take a typing class in high school for one semester. At the time, I considered it to be totally worthless, but when computer keyboards became ubiquitous 20 years later, I realized it was the most useful class I had ever taken. I commend my high school for its foresight].

Computers provide many other examples of vanished technologies that have left their terminology behind like the smile of the Cheshire Cat. There's "core dump", which refers back to an early computer memory system called magnetic core memory, in which the data was stored on little magnetized donuts. And "dial-up" modems were already misnamed when they first appeared, since they relied on phones that could receive and transmit tones, not dial phones at all.  Going even further back, we're still "telegraphing" our intentions to each other, even though no one has used a telegraph for a very long time.

So why do words outlive the devices they were first attached to? Think about it the next time you cc someone on your email -- and try not to get the ink all over your fingers.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Carbon paper was superseded by self-copying paper to print receipts and credit card vouchers. Many banks in Mexico still use it, along with dot-matrix printers, to print transaction receipts. Many shipping companies include it in pre-paid waybills, though these are largely filled out by hand using a ball-point pen.

Dial-up modems could dial, BTW. Back in 1991 when I started getting online, Mexico's phone system still used rotary dials and electromechanical pulses. Touchpad phones mimicked the pulses, as did modems. My first internet forays included dialing a local university on a 1200 bps modem, and using their access to telnet to the Cleveland Freenet.