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shameless pleading

Future puzzles

Shapes of things too glum.

Dear Word Detective:  Do you ever wonder what usages of today will have future etymologists scratching their heads?  For example, from a NYT article about the investigation of the attempted bombing in Times Square: “The police earlier on Monday sifted through footage from 82 city cameras mounted from 34th Street to 51st Street between Avenue of the Americas and Eighth Avenue ….”  A generation or two hence, people may wonder why electronic data was referred to as “footage.” — Ken Lerner.

Ha! You said “hence,” the telltale sign of an old fogey. But that’s an interesting question.  I generally try to avoid making predictions about the future because my track record isn’t exactly exemplary. Although I’ve never camped out on a mountaintop waiting for the mothership to arrive, I do happen to have more than a few cans of beans in the cellar dating back to the months before Y2K. I’m especially leery of predicting how much of what is known now will puzzle our descendants, because the only real growth stock I’ve spotted in the past few years is historical ignorance. Yes, kids, of course Paul Revere should have just texted the colonists, but his dad had cut off his account.

Your question is related to the topic of “retronyms,” which are new terms coined for   things that already exist (such as guitars) when a new form of the thing (such as electric guitars) arises, forcing a clarifying name for the old thing, such as “acoustic guitar.” (The term “retronym” was coined around 1980 by Frank Mankiewicz, then president of National Public Radio.) Thus when color TV came along, regular old television became “black and white TV.” Some years later, the spread of cable TV spawned the need to speak of “broadcast TV,” and the rise of cell phones necessitated the contrasting “land line.”  Our speech evolves to avoid ambiguity. No problem.

But when the original (usually “analog”) root of a term subsequently falls into obscurity,  the term itself can become a mystery. Most folks, however, seem to carry on without a pause,  never noticing that, for example, “footage” (originally referring to film or videotape) makes no literal sense when speaking of digital media. I’d be willing to bet that 90% of email users don’t know that “cc” stands for “carbon copy,” let alone what carbon paper was. Apple’s iTunes store sells “albums” of music (as well as single “songs”). But most iTunes customers are probably only dimly aware of “record albums” in the sense of a flat cardboard sleeve containing one or more humongous 33-1/3 rpm long-playing vinyl records. “Album” in this sense was itself, of course, an analogy to old-fashioned picture albums, full of family photographs taken with “film cameras” and printed on photographic paper. Speaking as one who spent his formative years in a darkroom, bathed in the amber glow of the safelight while breathing the heady fumes of Dektol and fixer, I find that last sentence incredibly depressing. Tri-X in D-76 forever!

Predicting such changes is tempting, but probably impossible with any real accuracy. If a newspaper folds its “print edition” and exists only online, in what sense is it still a “newspaper” and not just a “website”? If print magazines go the way of the dodo, will Slate and Salon still bother to call themselves “online magazines”? If the medium of ink on paper dies entirely and “e-books” become the only “books,” will folks wonder about (or even use) idioms such as “on the same page” and “turn the page”? Will even the “page” in “webpage” become naught but a meaningless suffix? How about that grand old interjection, “Stop the presses!”? Will whatever comes after Generation Twit assume it had something to do with weightlifting? And when we finally get our flying cars, will there still be stop signs? I’m gonna go lie down now.

3 comments to Future puzzles

  • gS49

    An addition to your explanation of record “album”: Going back before 33-1/3s, records could only be produced at 78 rpm, which allowed much less time per side. A song could fit on one side, but a classical symphony needed both sides of several disks.

    Often, the multiple disks were assembled into an — wait for it — album, which consisted of the paper sleeves which held the disks bound between hardboard covers. This was more similar to a picture album, or whatever “album” referred to before.

    The single disk 78-rpm albums took the term from the older 33-1/3 albums.

  • I hadn’t realized the association to “albums” of records… but despite being at least two generations too young for this to have been likely, I had a fair number of 78rpm records when I was young (including at least one which was made of ceramic).

  • David H. Hendon

    78 rpm records and albums preceded 33-1/3 records/albums, the latter having first appeared in the late 1940′s. It was the 78 rpm multi-record sets described that gave the term “album” to the 33-1/3 records and continues to apply to muliple “recordings” (on its way to functional obsolescence) in some sort of formal connection (as on a record, tape or CD), principally of music.
    Another rather obvious word anachronism is “dial” as to dial a phone number. Rotary dials on telephones are a real rarity if they continue to exist operationally at all, in the 21st century.

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