Mom! Dad dropped the AOL in the toilet again!

Dear Word Detective: With the recent release of a number of “tablet personal computers,” my colleagues and I got to discussing the word “tablet.” The reason that tablet computers are called that is reasonably clear. Why, oh why, do we call some of our pills “tablets”? They are not slabs, nor is there much space to write on them. Can you clear up this conundrum? — Mark Wujek, Tokyo.

Hmm. Tablet computers? Land O’ Goshen, what will they think of next? My laws, I suppose such a contraption is possible…. Oh wait, are we talking about that iPad thing? Yeah, I played with one in an Apple store a few months ago and instantly wanted one. Fortunately, it was insanely expensive, so I dodged the Apple Zombies and left without one. The funny thing is that as soon as I left the store I stopped wanting one, and couldn’t remember why I ever had. People say it’s just the famed Apple Reality Distortion Field at work, but I swear there’s something in the air in those places. Maybe aerosolized psilocybin. That would explain everything.

I know, of course, that there are other tablet computers out there and have been for quite a while. I wish them well, but I don’t want them either. Part of my problem with “tablet computers” is that the name has always struck me as strangely clunky and unappealing (which is why “iPad” is brilliant). “Tablet” for me conjures up the iconic image of Charlton Heston waving the Ten Commandments on those big stone tablets, not a handy little notepad.

“Tablet” first appeared in English around 1300 (adopted from the Old French “tablete”) with the meaning “A smooth stiff sheet for writing on, usually one of two or more fastened together, originally made of clay or wax-covered wood, later of ivory, cardboard, etc.; a number of such sheets fastened together” (Oxford English Dictionary). That “tablete” was a diminutive form of the Old French “table,” which meant “table” as well as “slab,” “writing surface,” “plank” and other things of similar form and function. Not surprisingly, English also adopted the parent word “table” from the Old French, but it came ultimately from the Latin “tabula,” meaning “plank, table, slab, etc.”

Although “tablet” initially meant “writing pad” in English, other meanings began to appear by the mid-14th century, and “tablet” eventually encompassed just about anything flat, squarish and relatively small, from roofing tiles to flat ornamental jewelry (“He hastily drew from his bosom, where it hung suspended from his neck, a large flat tablet of remarkably beautiful onyx,” Thomas de Quincey,1832).

Given that “tablet” in English was being used for anything small, flat and rectangular, it’s not that surprising that it came to mean “A small, flat, or compressed piece of a solid substance, originally of rectangular form; specifically a measured quantity of a medicine or drug, compressed into a small disc or lozenge and designed to be swallowed whole; a pill” (OED). What is somewhat surprising is that this usage first appeared way back in the early 15th century and has been in constant use since then (“It is yet in use, to wear little bladders of quicksilver, or tablets of arsenic, as preservatives against the plague,” Francis Bacon, 1626). So folks have been gobbling (or wearing, I guess) “tablets” of medicine for roughly 500 years.

“Tablet computers” aren’t quite that old, of course, although one probably could have applied the term to an abacus, which is usually small, flat, and can be used to do fairly complex math. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the first use of the term “tablet computer” in print to 1984 (“Shostak said battery-operated tablet computers will be available ‘within six months of this election’,” UPI Newswire), although Wikipedia points to a device called a Teleautograph (a primitive fax device utilizing telegraph lines) patented in 1888 as “an electronic tablet used for handwriting.” Um, OK.

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