The Friday Fillip: Scrolling?

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?


  1. It seems to me that your closing question is a metaphor as usually heard, and it would not have been used as commonly before computers. Maybe I’m hard-wired to believe that. I take multi-tasking to be of computer origin – perhaps you don’t think of it as a metaphor, just as a descriptive term that originated in computing. We often speak of mental activity in terms of computers – processing rather than thinking.

    In written language, not only HTML programmers finish a segment of writing with an end code , though I can’t say I have heard that used in speaking.

    No doubt others will have furhter examples.

  2. Fascinating question – really got my cpu running …

    But what words are unique to computing? If I said I was downloading some furniture from a warehouse the root word “load” still has its pre-computing meaning. Even fundamental computer concepts like “bit” and “byte” sound to me like they come from “bite”, meaning a single unit or the smallest portion of something eaten. Does reboot mean I’m giving the computer a good kick to wake it up or helping it put its boots back on? Scroll, page, screen, monitor, mouse … all old words.

    A half century is not a long time for language to evolve, compared to the long histories of sailing and hunting. I think with the swift technological change we were forced to improvise. But check again in 500 years or so … maybe a blog will be something other than a log caught in a web.

  3. In response to Ken Fox, I would say that the words do not have to be unique to computing. It’s their usage that has to be in a sense originally understood as about computing, and an image of that sense has been transferred metaphorically to something else.

    Thus in Simon’s original set of examples, having someoene over a barrel has a meaning that does not depend on unusual terminology – everyone knows what a barrel is. It depends on a particular image of a barrel in a phrase literally describing a discipline procedure in the English navy, transferred to non-navy usage.

    So referring to some kind of transfer of physical goods from one place to another as ‘downloading’ would in my view qualify as using a computer-based metaphor. I haven’t come across that use myself, but I understand it (I think).

  4. Karen Sawatzky

    Several years ago when my kids were little, I called them for dinner while they were playing a board game. My son said “let’s pause the game while we eat”, which had me laughing, yet it made sense to him. Obviously all they had to do was walk away from the game, but they were already conditioned to press pause when they left in the middle of a video game that they wanted to continue later.

  5. Yes, and I’ve heard kids talk about advancing to different “levels” when they are playing improvized, non-computer games – killing zombies, etc.