Half finished posts from the archives #2

Calculator. Computer. Software.

What do these three words have in common? Well, they all involve technology, but that’t not what I’m getting at. They all have the letter R in them? Again, it’s true, but not what I’m getting at. What about their meaings? Got it yet? How about I put it this way:

Caclulator – One who performs calculation. From “calculation” (n), which is from the late latin calculationem (n), which is in turn from the latin Calculare (v.).

Computer – One who counts or sums up. From the “Compute” (v.), meaning to count or sum up, from the latin Computare (v.).

Software – “woolen or cotton fabrics,” also, “relatively perishable consumer goods,” from soft (adj.) + ware (n.).

Events of Language

Sometimes, something happens which forever changes the meaning of a word. Of course, whole new words can be invented… but from time to time an existing word just goes through a midlife crisis and comes out of the end as something different entirely. Using the examples above, the events are easy to understand. “Calculator” switched from being a person who did a job to the tool they used around the time of the invention of the mechanical adding machine – the first recorded use is in 1784. The first use of the word with recognisably the same implications it now carries was in 1946. The first acknowledged switch of the word “Computer” from being a person to being a device for the same purposes was in 1897, referring to a mechanical calculating machine. The first use in the sense by which we now understand it was in 1937, and then only in a theoretical sense, referring to a Turing Machine. It was only in 1945 that the true modern meaning (“programmable digital electronic computer”) came to be. Software has an even stranger history – it’s a word that leapt in to being fully formed in 1960, and just happened to flatten another perfectly good word in the process. There’s no connection between the two meanings. The modern usage of the word is simply a way of saying computer related things that aren’t hard (adj.) + ware (n.). An opposite to hard was needed, and soft fitted the bill. The fact that prior to that point “software” meant cloth and preishable consumables rapidly became irrelevant.

World changes, word changes

In each case, the world had changed in a way that meant a word’s meaning was changed. There are plenty more words like this out there, and in each case, thinking of the words and how they came to be tells you something about a cultural or technological change. There are plenty of words that are in the process of making such transitions, or where extra meanings have been added, sometimes becoming the first thing that leaps to mind when you see them. For example, would you expect a film called “Alien” be about somebody who owes fealty to somebody in another country? Or about a strange visitor from another country? The usage implying extraterrestrial origin didn’t appear until the 1940s, and even then it was an adjective – an alien being or an alien device. “Alien” as a noun – “an alien” – didn’t appear until the mid 1950s. Then there’s the political and entymological football that is the word “gay”. Everyone knows it’s modern connotations, and most people understand the “happy and full of joy” meaning as well. But what about “brilliant and showy”, or (with the same pronunciation and derivation but a different spelling – gey) a tramp who sells himself when he has no other means to live. Or a young beggar who travels with an older beggar for tutelage? How about as an adjective implying promiscuity? That last meaning sounds like a modern use of the word, but actually dates back to the seventeenth century! The word itself has been the rope in a tug-o-war between legitimate use, euphemism, slang and empowering reclamation to the point where it’s become so charged as to be dangerous to use in polite society!

Sudden Upheavals

Most of the changes talked about beforehand are slow, gradualt evolutions. But sometimes it doesn’t work like that. For example, there used to a be word that meant “like a titan”, but doesn’t anymore. Well, technically it still does mean that, but in two hours on the night of the 14th and 15th of April 1912 the word came to mean something else. One “unsinkable” ship, one iceberg and a couple of unfortunate decisions… and the word “Titanic” can never be used to name a ship again. Disasters like this steal words from the language and it takes a long time to put them back… if it ever happens.

Out with the old…?

The majority of words that have had their meanings abruptly changed by the ever advancing world, though, are roles or job titles that have been replaced by tools to do those jobs. How long do we expect to wait before “shop-assistant” becomes a device of some kind? Have you been to Argos lately, and seen how the shop assistants role has dwindled to almost nothing. What about when you want to buy some music? How often do you ask the shop-assistant in the music store for recommendations these days? Or do you just look at what iTunes or last.fm recommends? How long until “manager” becomes the name of a piece of software that prioritises resources and facilitates the achievement of a function… no, wait – we’re already seeing software components that do just that, and are called managers. They’re not quite at the point of making decisions on their own yet, but in some people’s eyes that just makes the word fit even better…

Reference Materials

  • [url=http://www.etymonline.com/]Online Entymology Dictionary[/url]
  • [url=http://en.wikipedia.com/]The All Knowing Wikipedia[/url]