Words in English public website
LING 216 course information
Rice University
Prof. S. Kemmer

Technological Change and Meaning Change

The following are cases of technological change leading to changes in the meanings of words, in whole or in part. We can think of these words as linguistico-technological fossils, preserving a trace of old technologies in the words we use, long after the technology has disappeared.

dial (verb). Originally a noun for a round flat object with numbers on it indicating a measure of time, specifically a sun dial, and later any clock face. Still later the word was used for a part of a machine that showed the amount or degree of some quality like temperature, pressure, or speed; most often, such display gauges were still round like a clock face. Often a desired degree could be set by a user, which allowed dials to become associated with input into a machine; for example radio dials showed the frequencies a radio receiver could be tuned to, using a knob to control the frequency setting. Telephones acquired dials for use solely as input devices rather than for inputting and visually showing settings. In telephone dialling, the user selected numbers by putting the forefinger into one of the openings in a perforated disk set over a round number display, and dragging the finger, and hence the disk, around the circle to a fixed point and then releasing it. The verb dial was used for this action.

Telephone dials started being phased out in the 1960s, although it took a generation for that type of phone to disappear. The verb dial, however, for inputting phone numbers into a phone has outlasted the actual use of dials on phones, which now almost universally have numerical keypads (physical or virtual). The recent expression dial it down meaning 'scale back one's anger/enthusiasm/ostentatious behavior' makes reference to the control function of dials for setting quantity.

DJ Originally an initialism for disk (or disc) jockey. Disk was an informal term meaning 'record', the old technology for recording music on vinyl disks. Disk jockey was the name given to radio programmers who chose the music to play on pop and rock stations. Later it spread to any selector of music, e.g. at a party; and specifically was associated with music technology, as music selection and playing became more electronic. Now the word seems to also include any musician who uses technology to mix recorded music, and even create new music from pieces of recorded music and sound creation technology.

type (verb) 'to cause text to appear on a surface such as paper or a screen, by means of striking keys representing letters with the fingers. From the noun type which was a collective noun meaning 'letters fixed in sequence to a printing block that, when inked and pressed, produce text'. The word was first applied in the domain of printing in the late 18th century, a few centuries after the advent of the printing press with moveable type system of printing invented by Johannes Gutenberg. The typewriter, a kind of personal printing device operated by manually striking a keyboard with the fingers, developed via incremental inventions throughout the 19th century and by the 1870s some designs were commercially available. The verb type came into use around this time, and has survived for modern uses of keyboards that no longer physically control printing; keyboards are now generally electronic text input devices.

pen 'writing implement'," c.1300, from O.Fr. penne 'quill pen, feather,' from L. penna 'feather,' from PIE *petna-, suffixed form of base *pet- 'to rush, fly' (cf. petition). From the same base comes suffixed form *petra-, source of Skt. patram "wing, feather," Gk. pteron 'wing,' O.C.S. pero 'pen,' O.N. fjC6C0r, O.E. feC0er (see feather). In later French, this word means only 'long feather of a bird,' while the equivalent of English plume is used for 'writing implement,' the senses of the two words thus reversed from what they are in English. The verb is late 15c., from the noun.

pencil Late 14c., 'an artist's fine brush of camel hair,' from O.Fr. pincel 'artist's paintbrush' (Fr. pinceau), from L. penicillus 'paintbrush, pencil', lit. 'little tail', diminutive of peniculus 'brush', itself a dim. of penis 'tail'. Small brushes formerly used for writing before modern lead or graphite pencils. The meaning 'graphite-core writing implement' apparently evolved late 16c.

tape (verb); also videotape (verb) to record electronically for later playback. Original recording medium was magnetic tape: long strands wound first around reels, then later inside cassettes. Now that electronic recording is digital, no actual tape is present either for videotaping or audiotaping. But the verb is still used, usually for recording broadcasts from television to DVD or other electronic storage medium. Usually when a computer is the target recording medium, the verb download is used instead of tape, even if the segment recorded is broadcast via television.

turn on, turn off (verb). (as in turn on/off the lights). Originally from the turning action of the fingers used with gas lamps, which had flat knobs that could be turned with the finger-tips to control the amount of gas and therefore light produced by a lit lamp.

cable, diplomatic cable. The Wikileaks episode, in which "diplomatic cables" were made public on websites, creating scandal, awkwardness, and sometimes international incidents, made some people wonder what exactly a "cable" is. Diplomatic cables are private communications among embassy officials of various countries. They take their name from the old technology of cables laid under the ocean for long-distance telegraphic, and then telephonic communication; diplomatic communications had separate cables for security. The communications now happen mainly by email and texting, but the diplomatic messages are still called cables.


Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED Online)

© Suzanne Kemmer