Same with “putting the cart before the horse.” The idiom survived, but we haven’t used carriages to get around as a practical means of transportation in a century. We “hang up” the phone, even if it’s a cellphone. The VCR finally died last week, but we still talk about “rewinding” and “fast forwarding” a video. People still make “mix tapes,” but cassettes are long gone. What gives?
When a word or phrase becomes obsolete, it can continue on in common usage “if it has an established meaning,” Katherine Martin, the head of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press, said in an interview. “Meaning can transcend technology, but sometimes it doesn’t.”
In the case of the cart before the horse, Martin noted that 19th-century English speakers had a ton of words to describe types of carriages and situations specific to the experience of driving or riding in one. But those words and phrases didn’t survive; it was the idiom with an established meaning that did.
We’re used to talking about how technology is changing language in big splashy headlines. When “selfie” becomes a dictionary entry, everyone has an opinion about whether that is good or bad, or whether it’s earned, or how Kids These Days are ruining English with their “selfies” and emoji.
Less observed are some of the slower, more subtle changes to language, instigated by our relationships to current and past technology. The words that hang around. The words that shift a little. Wearable is now a noun, Martin noted, where it was once just an adjective. That’s a really telling change! But is it a press release? Not really.
You might not have noticed, but the rapid progression of technology over the past decade or so has left a flurry of phrases behind.
Clickbait refers to the act of “clicking” on a catchy headline with a mouse. “But on a mobile,” Martin noted, “you’re not clicking on anything.” You’re tapping.
Podcasting is a portmanteau that takes part of its name from the iPod. Who has an iPod anymore?
And then there’s the idea of the “the tube,” as in, “the boob tube” or the television. Nobody says “boob tube” anymore, but people sure as heck know what YouTube is, and that the “tube” part of YouTube means that you’re going to watch something.
It’s easy to see how some of these stuck around in retrospect, but it’s harder to predict which technologically specific phrases might outlive their origins. One that has a ton of potential to join this list, Martin said, was “swipe right,” as in swiping right on Tinder in order to approve of someone else’s profile. The phrase is super new, but it already has a more general meaning, “to choose something that you like,” Martin said.
Sure, Urban Dictionary (hardly the product of exhaustive lexicographical research, but a pretty good resource for what The Internet says something means) already gives a generalized definition for swipe right: ” ‘Swipe right’ can be used anytime you make a good choice or approve of something,” the top definition on the crowdsourced site reads. And it gives the following sentence as an example: “These burritos are so good! I’m glad we swiped right on Chipotle.”
The question is, will “swipe right” establish its meaning before Tinder becomes obsolete? It could, and as the examples above make clear, we might not see it happening until it’s already too late.
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