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shameless pleading

Delete

I am not a bug.

Dear Word Detective:  Did the word “delete” exist before computers and, if so, how was it used?  I can’t find anyone who would use “delete” in any other context than in relation to computer files, word processing, etc.  You don’t “delete” your rubbish when you throw it in the bin. You don’t “delete” text on a piece of paper using Wite-Out.  So if “delete” existed before the computer, what did in mean and how was it used? — Mark Chenery.

That’s an interesting question.  But before we get too far into exploring it, I’ll see your question and raise you a bigger one.  What if nothing at all, nada, existed before computers?  What if computers created everything we see, along with false memories of life before computers?  How could you tell?  There is, in fact, a fairly serious scientific debate about the possibility that our entire universe is actually a computer simulation run “from outside,” so to speak.  (See www.simulation-argument.com if you’re curious.)  I am partial to this theory myself because, while deeply depressing on one level, it would at least explain why, every so often, I hear a loud “boing” and the words “Insert another quarter to continue” flash in front of my eyes.

Your question about “delete” is quite understandable because the frequency with which the general public encounters the term has definitely increased dramatically since computers became ubiquitous in the home and business world in the 1990s.  You’d definitely have to search long and hard to find an example of the cheery phrase “accidentally deleted” before that time, and the verb “to undelete” doesn’t appear at all in the written record  before 1981, although the adjective “undeleted” (applied to something which “has not been deleted”) dates back to 1903.  That usage hints at the earlier history of “to delete.”

The root of “delete” was the Latin verb “delere,” meaning “to destroy, wipe out, remove,”  formed from “de,” meaning “away” and “linere,” meaning “to smear or wipe.”  Probably the most famous Latin use of “delere” was in the exhortation “Carthago delenda est!” (“Carthage must be destroyed!”), a rallying cry of Romans, usually ascribed to the statesman Cato the Elder, during the Punic Wars.

When “delete” first appeared in English in the late 15th century, it carried that meaning of “to destroy or annihilate,” but within a few years had acquired the less violent sense of “to obliterate, erase or expunge,” particularly to “cut” a portion of written material (“His Majestie deletted that clause,” 1637).  This is the sense, with extension into film, sound recording and other fields, in which “delete” has most commonly been used ever since.  As someone who worked as a proofreader and editor for years before personal computers became popular, I probably used the word dozens of times every day.

So yes, “delete” has been around for quite a while and in common use.  Of course the invention of a miraculous gizmo (the PC) which could, with the merest brush of a wayward finger (or the paw of a marauding cat) on one’s keyboard, irretrievably vaporize months worth of work has definitely made “delete” a truly household word.

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