I was thinking today about the books I’ve bought but have yet to read, and about how to describe those books. My instinct was to refer to them as my to-do list, but then I decided that that didn’t really work, because they’re not a list. This is the point where most people would stop thinking about it, because it wasn’t even part of a conversation anyway. Nevertheless, I persisted, and thought about the word inbox as a possibility. Yes, that made sense. I get them, put them in the imaginary inbox until I take one, read it, and then transfer it to my imaginary outbox. Good, so the pile of books beside my bed (and the others in the other room: there are a lot of them) is my inbox. Not that I stopped thinking there though.
Because then I thought: do many people actually have inboxes anymore? As in actual, physical inboxes? I know some people still use them, and many jobs require lots of physical paperwork, but I wondered if younger people than I only associate inboxes with email. Doubtless that’s the case for at least some people, especially before they enter the workforce. And then I thought again (this chain of thought I’m referring to is ongoing as I type by the way): why don’t I see memes on Facebook bemoaning the fact that kids these days don’t know what an actual inbox is? You see them all the time about the fact that young people might recognise the call, camera, and save icons on their phones and computers, but not actually know that they’re images of phones, cameras, and floppy disks respectively (I say might not know, because I’m sure a lot of them do). Such posts are in the grand tradition of I-can’t-relate-to-young-people-so-I’ll-complain-about-the-fact-that-they’re-not-familiar-with-obsolete-technology-and-aspects-of-my-youth-that-I’m-nostalgic-about-but-have-no-relevance-for-modern-youth memes. Kids don’t play outside anymore! and such.
Now you will find some people lament that The Young don’t know what actual mail/post is, and probably never send letters. But still, no-one cares that they don’t know what an inbox is. This makes sense to me though. There’s something romantic and personal about the idea of sending handwritten letters that e-mail can’t match, so I get that. But who gets nostalgic about inboxes? Who wishes that young people knew the stress of having an ever-building pile of paperwork in their inbox? Plus, the filling inbox has just been replaced by the anxiety of all those unread messages in your email inbox, so most young people working in office situations are quite familiar with that stress anyway. I wonder though, what other words have become untethered from their original meaning because of social or technological changes?
File and folder: again, physical files and folders do exist, but even for me, being in my fourth decade, the word file instantly brings to mind computer files.
Friend: this one can be contentious – has Facebook changed the meaning of the word friend? Has it cheapened it, as now you can be friends with someone you’ve never met? Personally, I don’t really think so, because the definition of friend has always been fairly flexible, with varying degrees of friendship existing. More importantly, we still distinguish between Facebook friends and real-life friends (though of course we’re usually Facebook friends with our genuine friends). I don’t think anyone with 1,000 Facebook friends would actually say they have 1,000 friends.
Spam and troll: often cited as words whose meaning has recently changed, and certainly technology has given them new meanings, but I think people are still fairly familiar with the originals.
cc: standing for carbon copy, dating from when a copy of a business document would be made on a sheet of carbon paper underneath. Still happens occasionally, but I think most of us now associate cc with email.
Viral: now this one though – I wonder how often people consider that this word is derived from virus, even though the words are clearly similar. I think it’s because when we think of a virus, we don’t think first of how quickly it can spread, but rather its negative effects, so the connection between the two words isn’t always obvious. And for most people, going viral is a positive idea, one they might even aspire to if they’re the strange type of individual who writes things on the internet for free. So you’re not going to want to think of someone wrapped in a dressing gown, shambling round and sniffing because they have the flu whenever you think about going viral.
Phonebook: this is a funny one, because a few years ago there were probably memes flying around about how young people think that phonebooks are only the lists of names in their mobile phone, and not those giant tomes delivered to the house once a year. But here’s the thing: do people even refer to phonebooks on their phones anymore? I don’t notice people using it that way these days. Contacts seems to be the mot de jour. I think it’s because the list of contacts in your phone aren’t just for phoning anymore, as you can also Skype, Whatsapp, Snapchat, or any other kind of new verb them.
That’s all I can think of for the moment. And I should stress that I’m not including words whose original meaning is still well-known (like cloud), or words which have changed meaning over long periods, or long ago (like awful). I’m also (I started the previous sentence with and, so I don’t want to repeat myself) not complaining about these words’ meanings changing at all. That’s what happens with language: it evolves to adapt to the world we live in. If at some point in the future, the word mail comes to mean only e-mail, will that be a problem if at that point we’ve long moved away from sending paper messages? Ironically enough, we’ll still be able to retain the knowledge that mail used to refer to posting actually letters and packages thanks to the capacity of technology to store huge amounts of information, and not disintegrate. For me, that’s a nice compromise between letting language evolve in its own way, while still getting nostalgic for the good old days, ironically using new technology to spread memes about how young people are now too attached to new technology.
Any other words I’ve missed that have recently lost their original meanings?