Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

Operating Systems for Life

A few years back in the Lounge I talked about how some words whose etymology or historical meanings were associated with food (granularity, feed, ware) had found their way into the lexicon of the information age, and acquired new meanings that were specific to computational and technical contexts. The common theme was how words originally connected in some way with food and our consumption of it were extended in meaning to apply to the way we manipulate and consume information.

Since then we have all continued to be insatiable informavores as well as increasingly sophisticated users of computer technology. Computer technology is so prominent in our lives now that there is some mission creep of word meanings in the other direction: words and meanings that were coined to designate aspects of interaction between humans and computers are now being used to characterize social and interpersonal interaction that is independent of computers. Here are a few examples.

Before the advent of computers, the noun and verb default had several uses in English, but was largely confined to particular contexts, especially to contract law: if you defaulted on a loan or obligation, you failed to pay it or fulfill it. This situation put you in default. This Ngram of default (both noun and verb) over two centuries shows that the word was essentially a sleeper until the 1980s, which was not coincidentally the period in which members of the public began to interact in increasingly large numbers with computers:

The sharp uptick in usage of default is surely due to a feature of computers that is now familiar to us all. Software programs and many bits of firmware and hardware have default values or settings—that is, what you get if you don't change anything. A look at the nouns associated with default make it pretty clear that the uptick in usage was due entirely to its use in computation:

The salient collocations with default today (values, settings, directory, drive) are familiar to nearly everyone; the collocations with default that prevailed in the 19th century (commitment, case, summons, imprisonment) have a distinctly musty feel to modern ears.

Today, it's not only computers that have defaults. A story at the end of October in the Guardian carried the headline "Suspicion has become Britain's default setting" Another more fully exploited example is in this blog post called Default: male, in which the writer explores the idea that "The idea of maleness as the default setting is manifested linguistically in all kinds of ways."

The term user-friendly, if you care to Ngram it, has a career path remarkably similar to default: it starts to rise steeply just before the 1980s. It seems to have been coined in the 1970s, with specific reference to design in computer interfaces that was aimed at making things easy for novice users. User friendliness is today an expected feature of consumer-facing software and hardware, but we also look for user-friendly products and environments when we are looking up from our screens. A scroll through news stories online shows that while most instances of user-friendly are still about software and websites, many other things now get that characterization: consumer products from hair curlers to musical instruments to cat boxes, and places from the new Covington, Kentucky transit center to bike lanes on a Canadian bridge are now called user-friendly.

Not long after computer users learned the value of rebooting, it became clear that a reboot was useful in many other areas of life: you can reboot a discontinued television series or movie franchise, a political or battleground campaign, or stalled negotiations—all in the hope of things going better than they were going before. Writers today are increasingly confident that they may borrow from computer jargon to talk about activity in other domains. A Tweeter in Texas was recently complaining that a ballot feature had been omitted from a newspaper's voter guide for its readers. His Tweet: "Undelete David! The Statesman cut David's race out of the voter guide. Pass the word that there is an important downballot race!",

It's no surprise really that we have taken features of our interaction with computers and applied them figuratively to our interactions with each other and with environments. The common theme is interactions between complex systems--person to computer, person to person, person to process, system, or environment. It makes for a natural and intuitive conceptual metaphor in both directions. We first understood computers from the domain of human behavior and interaction. Now we begin to frame human interaction from our understanding of the domain of computers and technology. We started out anthropomorphizing the computer in order to make it tractable to human interaction, and we gave it a lexicon that was relatable to the world we already knew: those metaphors were necessary if we were going to succeed in having a beneficial relationship with computing machines. Now that we are all becoming cybsersavvy, and devoting an ever-increasing share of our time and minds to the ways we interact with technology, it's natural that the ways we behave and respond in that domain will spill over into the parts of our lives that are not (yet) technology-enabled.

Are we all beginning that long but inexorable transition in which the human and the computer merge? Will the cyborgs of the future look back at these overlaps between tech talk and ordinary language as the foundation of their origin story? Perhaps readers can identify other ways in which we are carrying over our technological lives into the non-tech side, and how this is reflected in language.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.