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Continued: Lingo retro: Things change, but words remain the same

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , STAR TRIBUNE
  • Last update: February 3, 2009 - 5:38 AM

My wife asked me the other day if I had remembered to tape a TV show we had missed. I answered without hesitating.

Then I realized: "Tape?"

The Salas family -- like many others -- doesn't actually "tape" anything, having replaced the VHS tapes of VCRs with the hard drives of digital video recorders long ago. But I knew exactly what she meant, even if the words didn't seem in step with modern times.

There are other examples of words that haven't kept up with our constantly evolving technology.

We press buttons to make a phone call, yet we still call it "dialing" a number, harking back to the days of rotary-dial phones. You "rewind" a song on your iPod or a scene on a DVD even though there's no tape involved. And when was the last time you actually "turned" something when you turned on some gadget?

It's similar to a concept called "semantic bleaching" in the linguistic world, said Laura Gurak, professor and chair of the Department of Writing Studies at the University of Minnesota.

"What they mean is that the original concept gets bleached out from its original meaning," said Gurak, who specializes in writing in the Internet age and is the author of "Cyberliteracy." "The word is rooted in a literal meaning, and that's the way we become used to describing it. So when the technology changes and automates some of that or takes it away from some of the hands-on experience, those phrases or words become metaphoric."

So way back when, people did need to physically turn a handle, knob or dial to power up a device. Today, we press a button or simply touch a screen, but we still say we turned on an iPod or a TV.

Hanging onto old terms also is a way of making people comfortable with new technology, said Abby Schwerzler, a home-life supervisor at Best Buy's Mall of America store in Bloomington. As an example, she said customers will come in and ask, "What's Blu-ray?" and she'll explain that it's "like an enhanced DVD" -- or maybe she'll start a generation earlier with VHS if they're really out of touch.

"Customers are so overwhelmed with technology," she said. "It's not necessarily that they're afraid of it, but it does kind of scare them because it's something new."

Schwerzler added that she often thinks the lingo -- gigabytes, Blu-ray, HDMI -- is more intimidating than the technology. As she explains something to a customer, she says she often asks, "Is it all geek to you yet?"

Gurak, 50, said one of her favorite old terms used in modern technology is "cut and paste" -- taking, say, a block of text or an image in a computer document and moving it to another spot -- because she once worked in a print shop where they would cut out the type galleys for printing and use wax or paste to put them on layout boards.

"That's a particularly funny one, because as I get older, I'm one of the few people who actually remembers cutting things out and pasting them down," she said.

"Cut and paste" is an example of intentional retro-speak created by designers to ease users into new technology. It goes back to the Xerox Star computer interface developed in the late 1970s, which used "files," "folders" and other common office terms to initiate workers unfamiliar with the inner workings of personal computers.

Now those words have become so embedded in our culture that we've forgotten that they once had a much narrower definition. And it spans generations.

Schwerzler, 25, says she "dials" phone numbers on her cell phone even though she has never used a rotary-dial phone, having only seen one at her grandparents' home.

Gurak said, "The students I teach don't even remember a dial, but they use the term because it's become embedded in our language. Now, you've reached that semantic bleaching where the original meaning is irrelevant; it's just a verb."

The ironic upshot of this shift from the literal to the metaphoric? There is no exact term to describe the use of old words to describe new technology, Gurak said; "semantic bleaching" is simply the closest linguistic equivalent.

So what to call them? Cyberphors? Techno bleaching? Gurak said she plans to mull it over.

Meanwhile, she'll keep thinking of examples: "I have a friend who still says, 'Let's watch a video,' And I'm like, 'They're not videos anymore. Stop saying that!'"

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542

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