By Richard Lederer
It wasn’t that long ago that, in the course of a typical lifetime, only the cast of characters playing out the human drama changed, not the drama itself. But starting with the Industrial Revolution in 18th-century England and 19th-century America, the text of the play itself began changing, and these days it seems to be revised daily. The world spins faster, and the speed of technical advance can make us dizzy.
Hail and farewell to rumble seats and running boards. Iceboxes and Frigidaires. Victrolas and hi-fi’s. Fountain pens and inkwells. Telephone booths and party lines. Test patterns. Tennis presses. Slide rules. Manual typewriters. Corrasable Bond, photostats, and mimeographs.
The inexorable advance of technology shapes our culture and the language that reflects it. We used to watch the tube, but televisions aren’t made of tubes anymore, so that figure of speech has disappeared. Something that irritated us was like chalk squeaking across a blackboard, but nowadays it’s all whiteboards or PowerPoint, and they don’t squeak.
We used to dial telephone numbers and dial up people and places. Then came push-button phones and then cell phones, so we scramble for a new verb—“Sorry, I must have pushed the wrong number”; “I think I’ll punch up Doris”; “I’ve got to tap the Internal Revenue Service”; Press M for Murder—and watch dial dying on the vine.
How many more years do hot off the press, hung out to dry, put through the wringer, and carbon copy have, now that we no longer print with hot lead, hang wet clothes on clotheslines, operate wringer washing machines and copy with carbon? Despite the electrifying rise of online reading, Personally, I tightly cross my fingers that, we won’t have to bid farewell to the paper in newspaper.
Do any young folks still say, “This is where we came in?” The statement means the action or situation is starting to repeat itself, and it comes from the movies. Today there are so many ways of finding out exactly when a movie begins, but back in the day, we’d get to the theater at pretty much any time and walk in at random. We might watch the last half of a movie and then some trailers, a newsreel and cartoons (which the multiplexes don’t show anymore) and then the second movie in the double feature and then the beginning of the first movie until the point where we could say, “This is where we came in.”
Do I sound like a broken record? Do you think I must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle? In our high-tech times, these metaphors fade away, like sepia photographs in a family album.
Remember when IBM was something a two-year-old might say to a parent? The computer, the most deeply striking technology of our lifetimes, has powerfully challenged our sense of so many hitherto uncomplicated words: back up, bit, boot, click, cloud, cookie, crash, hacker, icon, mail, memory, menu, mouse, pop-up, program, scroll, spam, surf, virus, window, worm, and zip.
Then there’s the expression all thumbs, which used to mean “clumsy with one’s hands,” as in “Whenever I have to give the baby a bath, I’m all thumbs.” Nowadays one who texts speedily and accurately on a Smart Phone is “all thumbs,” and that’s a compliment.
As science shrinks our world, the language of distance changes. Remember that admonition “Shhh. I’m on long distance!”? Phrases like long distance, coast-to-coast and even worldwide used to hold such excitement for us. Now we take them for granted, so we hardly ever use them.
Just as one never steps into the same river twice, one cannot step into the same language twice. Even as one enters, words are swept downstream into the past, forever making a different river. We at the far end of the chronological and language arc have the advantage of remembering that there are words that once did not exist and that there were words that once strutted their hour upon the stage and now are heard no more, except in our collective memory. We also recognize that there are words, many of them technical, that have donned dramatically new meanings. It’s one of the great advantages of aging. We can have archaic and eat it too.
Dr. Richard Lederer is the author of more than 50 books about language, history and humor, including his newest books, “A Treasury of Halloween Humor” and “A Treasury of Christmas Humor.” To order signed copies, explore his website, verbivore.com or write him at email@example.com.