No matter how many tens—nay, hundreds—of thousands of words we have in English, we still feel the need to take a thought from column A and apply it against something in Column B, or C, or D. At its purest, this is metaphor: x is y goes the assertion that no one believes but almost everyone understands. And appreciates. Much of the time, rather than a crisp and literary metaphor, it’s a whole expression that’s ported from one trade to another, or just into common parlance. Thus, something can be “all Greek to you” even if Η γλώσσα δεν είναι ελληνική or you can find “the ball in your court.”
Gradually, of course, the “ooh!-never-thought-of-it-that-way” grows fainter but we keep repeating the husk though the kernel’s lost to history, or at least to our ken. We say we have someone “over a barrel” or give someone “a dressing down” or call someone “footloose” or ask that everything be “above board,” all without any real sense that these expressions and hundreds more come from the trade of sailing. Or from hunting (“red herring” – but see Wikipedia), or theatre (“steal someone’s thunder“), or printing (“mind your Ps and Qs“) and so on.
Almost any trade or practice can throw off these transferred idioms, so long as it offers us useful or entertaining novelty. For example, automobiles had us “putting on the brakes,” radio gave us “tuning in” (or “out”), television gave us “channels,” and rocketry taught us to “blast off,” to name just a few.
But—and here is my question—where are the computer expressions? It used to be that you might “re-boot” something, but that is already obsolete. I can’t think of expressions involving floppy disks or even hard drives, but it doesn’t matter because they too are out, or are soon to be. Yet few things have so altered our lives as computers. They enable us, entertain us, connect us, frustrate us, and provide many of our jobs. But I don’t hear computer metaphors in our non-computer lives.
It could be that I’m just not listening, in which case you’ll tell me what it is that you hear. It could also be that it takes time for expressions to creep from one field to another, though it’s been, what? fifty years now that we’ve been dealing with this technology. Perhaps the language is already filled up with expressions from the old trades and practices; after all, sailing, hunting, warfare, farming, these have been with us for millennia and have expanded linguistically into every available niche. But English was never a tongue to be satisfied with only what was; it inhales the new rapaciously and layers it over the old like some greedy and dodgy builder.
I wonder, then, if it isn’t the case that IT is changing so rapidly that there’s just no time for the phrase makers to latch on to a fleeting computer term and export it to the rest of us as a nifty way to say things. Early adopters aren’t understood by late adopters, though there’s often only a matter of months between them; and who even remembers My Space (or was it MySpace?)? Heck, we’re still “dialing” phones, even as they disappear into our ears. So could it be that this great industry will be a dumb one, leaving no words behind as it mutates and transmogrifies, always there but never found outside the core?
What do you think? Does this compute?