In-use terms with anachronistic referents
July 24, 2012 9:09 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of terms that remain in common use, even though the technology that they originally described is obsolete or has changed. Also: does this phenomenon have a name?

The examples that come to mind are: A motorboat or ship can sail to a destination, even though it doesn't have a sail. The save icon shows a 3.5 inch disk that is no longer used. An online tabloid may be referred to as a rag. For many the original reference may be lost to most modern users.

I feel like there are a million of these on the tip of my tongue, and I'd even say I bet there's like one well known perfect example. But I can't think of many at the moment. Help!

(backstory: in the ad serving industry, images are used when a user's browser doesn't have flash. These are traditionally called "backup gifs," but they can usually be jpgs, and that's what brought it up.)
posted by condour75 to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I "tape" TV shows on my DVR.
posted by dyobmit at 9:11 AM on July 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

We no longer have dials on phones or televisions, but are instructed to dial a number or to not touch that dial.
posted by griphus at 9:11 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Similar to the floppy disk, I've seen things with a phone icon but most phones don't look anything like that anymore.
posted by VTX at 9:12 AM on July 24, 2012

Previously on the same subject.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:13 AM on July 24, 2012

Phones "ring."
posted by Wordwoman at 9:14 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Saying "rewind" to mean backing up on a song or recorded movie or show.
posted by kimdog at 9:14 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

And previously elsewhere.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 9:15 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also previously.
posted by specialagentwebb at 9:20 AM on July 24, 2012

I think folks still refer to music as "records". Specifically as in Record Release. Now I think that instead of the old vinyl pressing we're using the word more generically as in a recording, but the genisis of the word is still a licorice pizza.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:20 AM on July 24, 2012

I always hear little kids say things like 'video tape that with your iphone' and it gives me future/past goosebumps.
posted by th3ph17 at 9:22 AM on July 24, 2012

CD-R stands for CD-Recordable; according to Wikipedia.

We still refer to movies as films, regardless of whether they're filmed (<--) digitally or on actual film.
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:35 AM on July 24, 2012

Most movie people refer to movies as a film or picture, when many (but certainly not all) movies are now shot digitally. Many people still use the hand crank motion to get someone to roll down their window, even through hand window cranks are gone from all but the very least expensive cars.
posted by cnc at 9:36 AM on July 24, 2012

There are no horses powering my car. I know, I looked.
posted by Jilder at 9:38 AM on July 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

Facebook photos are organized into albums.
posted by rhizome at 9:46 AM on July 24, 2012

The cursor.
posted by nonane at 9:49 AM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

You "print" to a PDF.

Many things that we "book" used to require actual books.

There is still a "carriage trade" but there are no carriages.

Most places with a "wrong side of the tracks" have no tracks.

Most people don't even know what the buck is in "passing the buck" and "the buck stops here (though they are still used some places).
posted by ubiquity at 9:49 AM on July 24, 2012

We carbon copy (cc:) someone on an email even though many of us have probably never used or seen real carbon paper.
posted by castlebravo at 9:52 AM on July 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

When I was a kid, I remember teachers referring to worksheets as "dittos" even though they were made on a xerographic copier, not a spirit duplicator. I still sometimes think about worksheets as dittos.
posted by radioaction at 9:53 AM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

In design, the term is skeuomorphism, and especially with computers it's become very obvious, with your example of an icon representing a 3.5" disk for saving being a frequently referenced example.

I don't know if there's a comparable linguistic term to cover things like "sailing" a motorboat.
posted by fatbird at 9:58 AM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

In my circle, usage goes We think Apologies to the Queen Mary is a freakin great record.

'Record' being short for 'Recording', commonly meant to imply vinyl, used above in reference to a CD or mp3.
posted by j_curiouser at 10:01 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of metaphors refer to historical/obsolete actual things:

White knight or knight in shining armor for someone doing the right thing.
Three dog night for a rough situation, refers to a night so cold that nobles brought three dogs into their bed to try to stay warm.
The concept of being noble or a gentleman or a lady. Refers to actual nobility, now describes character or behavior.
posted by Michele in California at 10:05 AM on July 24, 2012

Many of us over a certain age (I'm not sure where the boundary lies) still call it the "Return key," even though that key has been marked "Enter" for ages now.
posted by ErikaB at 10:14 AM on July 24, 2012

I think folks still refer to music as "records". Specifically as in Record Release.

Indeed, the Grammys still give out a Record of the Year for single songs. In fact, the Grammy's are named for the gramophone, which is only still relevant because of the shape of the award.
posted by soelo at 10:25 AM on July 24, 2012

ErikaB: Sure, but on my keyboard right now there is an icon illustrating the movement of a typewriter platen upwards and to the right (or cursor down and to the left). :)
posted by rhizome at 10:27 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't think "record" really counts - the term was originally picked, I presume, because you are making a (audio/video) "record" of some event or piece of art. This works for any technology you like, whether it is vinyl, CD, or a DVR.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 10:27 AM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

The term "record album" is an interesting case. Back in the really old days of 78s, you could only get a few minutes per side. So to get a decent amount of music, you bought a bunch of 78s as a set, which came in something that looked quite a lot like a photo album.

When LP records came along, we called a single LP (which had about as much music as an old album of 78s) "albums," even though the album-like nature of the recording was gone. Now, what might otherwise be called an "album" of CDs is a "boxed set."
posted by adamrice at 10:36 AM on July 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

This is incredibly old in some words, and I think it is a function of how language grows. For example, "spoon" originally meant "piece of wood", yet the majority of spoons today are metal or plastic. "Hammer" comes from a word meaning "stone", yet most hammers haven't been made with stone heads for hundreds or even thousands of years. And the same kind of thing happens in all language. Basque for ax is "aizkora", supposedly meaning "stone on top". Many of us are not aware of the origins of such common words, but they often fossilize bits of long dead technology (and society) in their meaning.
posted by Jehan at 10:49 AM on July 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Turning lights on or off -- or, in some dialects, "close the lights".
posted by endless_forms at 11:08 AM on July 24, 2012

We "roll down" car windows - even though most cars haven't had a window crank for lowering the window in decades...
posted by dbmcd at 11:20 AM on July 24, 2012

We've "typed" letters and such for generations, though there are rarely bits of movable type involved.

Probably the most widespread and unquestioned: we use arrows to point direction, though shooting with a bow is a part of very few people's lives.
posted by wjm at 11:35 AM on July 24, 2012

People still "cut and paste" within documents, even though this hasn't involved scissors or glue for quite a few years.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:53 AM on July 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Sometimes I "iron" my clothing with an appliance made of ABS plastic and teflon-coated aluminum.

Every day I put on "glasses" that are made of polycarbonate.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 12:12 PM on July 24, 2012

There are no horses powering my car. I know, I looked.

I'm not sure horsepower would really fit, as it was a well-defined (for certain values of "well-defined" inherent in the Imperial system) unit of measurement when the term was coined. It's simply comparing the power output of your engine (or, originally, a steam engine) with the number of horses required to do the same work - in terms of a steam engine, the comparison used was to the water pressure that could be produced by both means. Last I checked, horses still existed and you could certainly grab a few (hundred) and compare their output to that of your V6.

What about the use of "glove box" to refer to that handy cubby in the panel? No one I know stores gloves in there. Or "cranking" the engine?
posted by backseatpilot at 2:25 PM on July 24, 2012

Sometimes, people in video/digital film production will use the term 'in the can.' Meaning, the footage is shot and ready for editing. Of course, video doesn't go in film canisters.
posted by hot_monster at 2:50 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

While you do still "Login" to your internet connection, in the sense that the connect and disconnect are logged as events, chances are you aren't "on-line" anymore given the wireless nature of the common household internet AP, and your "cable modem" has never actually performed the job of MOdulation/DEModulation of electrical pulses and coded sound; likewise any 3G/4G "modems."

Do you still "hang-up" your phone as if it were bolted to the wall and owned by the phone company? Still "Dial" numbers?" (it's fun seeing young people encounter a rotary phone these days)

Oh, I see someone got that-- though "don't touch that dial" refers to the two-dial channel changer on your television-- 3 if you had to manually switch between VHF channels (2-13) and UHF channels (14-63).

Many of you may know that the reason the Brits don't call a telephone, they "ring" it, is because they, for a while at least, preserved the meaning of "call," which is a personal visit. (At which you usually presented or left behind a literal calling card, sometimes slightly altering it to leave a coded message.)

Calculators were people before they were machines.

Also, Horsepower experienced some deflation-- a single engine horsepower is equivalent to the power of 4 draft horses, not 1.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:57 PM on July 24, 2012

My 100% absolute favourite, is that the widely used sign language to indicate to a waiter that you want the bill mimes someone actually signing a credit card receipt. At least in Europe, no one has had to sign a bill for more than an decade (chip 'n' pin) but everyone still uses this sign.
posted by roofus at 3:38 PM on July 24, 2012

An automobile's "dash board" comes from the piece of wood on a stage coach (or otherwise horse-drawn carriage) that the driver puts his feet upon, so that when the horses begin to accelerate, dirt/dust/mud/etc do not get kicked up to them and is deflected back to the ground..
posted by Quarter Pincher at 4:45 PM on July 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

One that I just remembered that I really like is "Fly!"

There's that scene in one of the Lord of the Rings movies, when Gandalf the Gray is about to have a very bad last-stand encounter with Balrog, and he shouts to his party, "Fly, you fools!"

He didn't mean "take off to the skies," but "get out of here quickly." Before manned flight (of any kind, gliding, lighter-than-aircraft, magic-aided etc.), man looked at the movement of birds in the air and identified it as rapid movements in a departure situation-- being airborne not required.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:33 PM on July 24, 2012

Best answer: I found this (short) list
posted by piyushnz at 5:07 AM on July 25, 2012

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