I see dead words: Terminology that technology has left behind

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.

Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

(Image Wikimedia Commons)

“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.

Dhscommtech at English Wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

(Image Dhscommtech via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

By Dnalor 01 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

(Image Dnalor 01, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.”

“Private.”

Oops.

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.

  • Dan

    Think of all of the icons surrounding us that represent dead (or antiquated) technologies:

    The floppy disk “save” icon
    The old school telephone handset “phone” icon
    The answering machine tape “voicemail” icon
    The filmstrip/film canister “movies” icon
    The magnifying glass “search” icon

    Imagine being a ten year old kid and trying to figure out what the Save icon picture is supposed to mean…

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      And therein lies yet another good column idea.

    • LonelyTraveler

      I had my 10 year old nephew find my old stash of floppy diskettes and remark that I had a collection of 3D “Save buttons” :-)

      • guest

        Cute!

  • John Chenault

    Putting on my old timely engineer hat- you are wrong about how rotary dials work. When you say

    “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 “.
    As the dial returned, it broke the connection depending on the number being dialed. The time to rotate had nothing to do with it. Indeed when you were in a hurry you could force the dial to move faster and it still worked.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I appreciate the more detailed explanation, which I had to condense for the sake of space. Yes, it did break the connection, and did so a specific number of times for each digit (thus, why it was also called “pulse” dialing). A governor device controlled the speed of the dial’s return rotation, so more pulses were perceived as taking more time.

  • Mike_Acker

    remember the “IBM punch cards” ? yep. those went the way of the do-do bird. at times i see notes from pundits yelling at us to get rid of the “obsolete” fax-machine. the fax machine won’t go away until people get rid of printers.

    the first step in getting rid of printers is to get a good scanner and start storing important documents in your /correspondence directory. couple that with a quality *indexed* desk-top search tool and you can find the document you need at a moment’s notice. which you cannot do with paper

    the second step is in standardizing a quality *secure* e/mail system. people need to learn to exchange and verify keys and to use secure e/mail. Outlook with PGP/desktop is one solution; Thunderbird with GnuPG and ENIGMAIL is another although I note there should be a Chrome extension for G/Mail soon which may provide similar capability.

    remember: authentication of messages is critical: you have to know who you are talking to. security is important as well as it is necessary to protect valuable data such as account numbers and such. and integrity: it is important to know that messages have not been altered in-transit.

    these things will come, in time.

    and later they will be normal procedure and we’ll look back at our paper based systems and say “what a mess”.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Then again, there was a columnist (not me) who noted, two decades ago, as others were trumpeting the arrival of the “paperless office,” that “we’ll have the paperless office as soon as we have the paperless toilet.” Considering those appliances actually now do exist, we may be closer for the office.

    • Carolyn

      A mess: exactly! So many of us are looking back at our analog world which consisted of such an incredible amount of bulk. We’ve converted CD’s into mp3′s, digitized assorted tapes and films, scanned a zillion family photos/slides/negatives, use paperless billing, download copies of paid bills and store via pdf’s, use online banking exclusively – thus the uses for a shredder are pretty minimal. Downside: Unless my kids check out my computer hard drives/backups when I croak, my (and their) entire history will end up vaporized. Just wish actual family heirlooms (the stuff you can’t throw away, never use, and take up space) could be compressed and put into a zip folder.

      • Mike_Acker

        =”Just wish actual family heirlooms (the stuff you can’t throw away, never
        use, and take up space) could be compressed and put into a zip folder.”

        alas

        compulsive hoarding is a detrimental behavior like many other addictions. the key to recovery is getting the person to recognize that their behavior is hurting them rather than helping them. I wish I knew how to do that :( gambling is not a source of money and alcohol does not solve problems — any more than unusable junk is ever going to be helpful.

  • Eric Redman

    How about “tin foil?”

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      True that. I think it’s sole appropriate applicability may be for hats, now.

  • http://Gnarlodious.com/ Gnarlodious

    I always wonder why “turn on the light”, because you never “turn” anything. Maybe a century ago switches were rotary…

    • LonelyTraveler

      Or maybe, when you had oil lamps, you “turned the wick up” to get more light :)

      • http://Gnarlodious.com/ Gnarlodious

        Very funny! Kerosene was analog while electric was digital. So “turn up the light” worked with kerosene but not with electric.

    • MikeL

      Rotary light switches were still available in the 1930s. Most rotary switches had a ceramic body with bakelight knobs. Most of the lighting in the houses had individual conductors with spiral-wrapped cloth insulators. I used to hike to a mining cabin which still has the old fixtures.

  • Scott Milburn

    Frank, great article! I think I will cut and paste it into another document ;)

  • John

    Guilty as charged

  • hhunt13

    Considering that we still give people “free rein”, or that we can still be “on tenterhooks”, or a “dyed-in-the-wool believer centuries after giving up home textile production, I’m not holding my breath.