There are words that are dead. They just don’t know it yet.
The advance of technology has left, in its wake, zombie terminology. It’s the verbal equivalent of junk DNA, inserted as anchorless references in complex strings of day-to-day communication.
Sometimes, it might cause us to briefly hesitate. While the words flow from our mouth or keypad, we realize that something doesn’t quite sound right.
Think you’re immune? Not if you find yourself conversing with these five words. Think of them as the Speaking Dead.
“CC:” an email. It’s embedded in the second address field of Gmail, Outlook, and pretty much any email client. But those two letters? They’re a throwback to the days of manual and electric typewriters, before computers or even copying machines were common. They are an abbreviation for “carbon copy.”
Here’s how it worked: If you wanted more than one copy of a letter (or report, or form) without having to retype it, you inserted a sheet of messy black “carbon paper” between two sheets of typing paper. The pressure of the key striking the paper transferred the black carbon particles to the second sheet (or sometimes a third sheet, known as filling out a form in “triplicate”). Carbon paper was so universally loathed for staining fingers and clothing that minor office celebrations were sparked when “carbonless forms” – still in use today – were introduced.
Some may claim that cc: now stands for “courtesy copy,” but that seems a bit duplicitous. A simple “Copy:” would make more sense.
“Dial” a number. Quick: When was the last time you saw a rotary phone outside of Netflix or Nick at Nite? (Hell, when was the last time you saw a hard-wired landline home phone?) Rotary dialing – which relied on how long it took for the finger hole for a specific number on a dial to rotate back to its starting point and signal to the telephone network which digit was selected – was on its way out long before mobile and wireless phone handsets. Thank the invention of touch-tone keypads.Yet people still say they “dial” a phone number. (A close relative of this zombie term is broadcast television’s “Don’t touch that dial!” admonishment, back when TV sets had two knobbed dials, one for 12 VHF channels, a second for fuzzy UHF stations…. Wait. I lost you at “broadcast television,” didn’t I?)
“Call” a number is a good alternative. And don’t touch that remote. At all.
“Tape” a program or event. Though I keep a shrine to communications technology ancestors in my home office closet (an altar complete with open-reel recorder, VHS recorder, and dual cassette deck), I no longer “tape” a television show any more than I listen to music on a Victrola in the sitting room. But it’s still commonly heard. Perhaps not so much as its relative, in this post-Super 8 and Kodachrome world, of “filming” an event.
Really, we all “record” video, audio and events – the medium is now meaningless. Unless we’re not actually recording it at all, and are simply streaming it from someone else’s server through the cloud.
“Roll down” the window. Have you ever stood outside of a friend’s car with an urgent message, the windows closed, and mouthed at them to “roll down the window,” accompanied by a hand motion as though you were turning a knob on a handle? (Polite interpretation.)
If you did it this century, or even much of the final part of the last, you should take a photo of the inside of your car door and post it on Twitter for #throwbackThursday. That manual, gear-and-lever crank mechanism is moot. A precise “open the” window should suffice.
“Next slide” in presentations. Usually, it happens in a conference room or auditorium. The presenter has lost control of the visuals. “Next slide!,” he or she shouts to the person controlling the … laptop.With tools like Prezi and Haiku Deck, we may be pondering a post-PowerPoint era, but we are definitely in the post-35mm slide era. Slides were transparent slices of color film mounted either in two-inch square cardboard or plastic frames with center rectangles visible so light could be projected through them and the image enlarged onto a screen. When the tool was mimicked by software, the terminology came along for the show. (Similarly, overhead projectors were used in conference rooms and classrooms to display transparencies or, earlier, “viewfoils.”)
Perhaps the biggest bonus from this transition? No more invitations to friends’ houses to see endless clanking carousels of slides filled with vacation photos. Now, they can hand us their phone. “Next screen” is better. Somewhat.
Yet “slide” may also become emblematic of something that can happen to outdated technology terminology. In rare cases, a word may shift from being descriptive of a specific action to describing a more general concept as it lives, resurrected and reborn, in general use. After all, how many horses are really pulling your car?
Our language is a lumbering, shifting bundle of anachronisms, digitally propelled. “Carbon copy.” “Dial.” “Tape.” “Slide.”
Frank Catalano (@FrankCatalano) is an independent industry consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose regular GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. It worries him how many of these origin details he knew from memory. He thanks Mark Loundy, Tom Woodward, Paige Kowalski, Jennifer Dulude, Paige Johnson, Martha Donelan, Jennifer Lloyd, Marshall Stowe, Sally Anderson and many others on Facebook and Twitter for helping him spot zombie speech.