Antiquated terms, modern meanings

In a rather silly, but revealing piece of journalism, Avram Piltch of Laptop admonishes us to stop using antiquated terms to describe what we’re doing. The article, “13 Tech Terms You Should Never Use Again,” reminds us that we are creatures of deeply embedded habit; and that we are wont to speak about new things in terms that better fit old things.

As Piltch states, “You’d never describe your USB Flash drive as a floppy disk, even though it serves the same purpose. You wouldn’t think of referring to the network admin who runs your servers as a ‘keypunch operator.’ So why did you tell your daughter that you are “filming” her dance recital on a digital camera?”

The exemplar of this phenomenon is the phrase “to dial the phone.” During the 1970s, rotary dial phones took their first step toward obsolescence. As such, most of us haven’t technically “dialed” anything in a very long time.

If not “dialed” then what? Piltch offers these alternatives: “Just say you’re calling, inputting or entering a phone number any time you try to initiate a call.”

Inputting? What are we? Robots? While more precise, the idea of ‘inputting’ a number probably sounds stilted to most of us. Less frequently you might hear someone tell you to “punch in the number,” but this too, lacks that certain something we get with “dial.”

Another artifact of the analog to digital divide is the verb “tape.” As in “I’m going to tape that show so I can watch it later.” Just like dialing the phone, most of us haven’t used a VCR to tape anything since the Clinton era.

Piltch suggests instead “record” or “DVRing.” The latter suggestion might be acceptable if we ever said ‘I’m going to VCR that program.’ Most haven’t. Most wouldn’t.

Piltch makes even less convincing arguments in favor of dropping the verb “film,” as well as the nouns “smartphone,” “blog,” and “desktop publishing.” We probably don’t even need to assail the question of “cranking up the car.”

The real folly of Piltch’s whole approach is his predicate assumption. He seems to imply that any given action or naming of a thing has some absolutist single true name. More than a century of linguistic theory refutes that assumption.

While space and the interests of readability don’t permit a full telling of it, the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure developed a system of analysis that helps us understand how we use words to represent certain ideas. He spoke of this as the process of forming “signs.” He argued that a sign is composed of two parts: a ‘signifier’ (signifiant) — the form which the sign takes; and the ‘signified’ (signifié) - the concept it represents.

An example would be the word “Open” (when it is invested with meaning by someone who encounters it on a shop doorway). Open is a sign consisting of: a signifier: the word open; a signified concept: that the shop is ready to receive customers.

From this, Saussure argued that signs are inherently arbitrary. There is no natural relationship between the signifier and the signified; thus, their relationship is founded solely on convention. As Saussure might clarify, English speakers have agreed that the word “dog” will be used to connote the domesticated four-legged animal that is furry and barks. There is nothing inherent in the particular combination of the letters d-o-g or the sounds we ascribe them that allies them with the animal depicted above.

In short, a dog is called a dog because we agreed to it. By extension, we all know what is signified by “dialing” the phone, “taping” a program and “cranking” up the car. In this discussion of pedantic semantics the one thing that isn’t clear is Piltch’s need to “hone in” so narrowly on ideas that are pretty clear.

As we finish this piece, only one thing left to do: send a “carbon” to the copy desk.