Friday, March 14, 2008

Technical effects—on language

Has anyone but me noticed the evolution of the word "access" from noun to verb? Once upon a time, one had to have, gain, or get access to something. Only with the advent of the computer has one simply been able to access something.

Then, of course, there’s the new “times” table, so to speak. Once upon a time, people would look at their good old-fashioned analog watches and tell you that they’d meet you at “quarter of,” “quarter after,” or “10 to.” I don't think that anyone with a digital watch even thinks of time in terms of quarter hours. And the expressions “5 of” or “20 to” (“of” or “to” meaning, in this case, “minutes before” a given hour) are dead as doornails, victims of digital technology. Not for nothing I refused to buy my son a digital watch until he was, as I recollect, in his teens—I wanted to be sure that the famous clock in the main hall of Grand Central Station—and any other analog timepiece—wouldn’t be a mystery to him.

You also may have noticed that, in my previous post, I used the phrase “10 minutes before 7.” Does anyone speak of minutes before a given hour, these days? Or does the fact that digital watches indicate only the number of minutes after an hour preclude the users from even thinking in terms of the number of minutes before an hour?

Sometimes technology not only affects the way we think, it actually forces changes in the way we think.


Blogger RaggedyMom said...

That's a very interesting thought about 6:50 showing up digitally and not being referred to as 10 minutes to 7.

Language definitely evolves. I think an earlier example of this is the proper noun (company) Xerox turning into a verb meaning to photocopy something: "Pardon me while I go xerox this document." Or the proper noun of Kleenex turning into a common noun meaning just a tissue.

Back to the time issue, I think that saying 10 "of" the hour fell out of favor in NYC earlier than in other places. Friends of mine from Baltimore who are my age would still use this construction, whereas I had never heard of it growing up in NYC. If you are comfortable using it, it is possible that it was common here before as well.

Fri Mar 14, 03:33:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

I forgot all about the Xerox and Kleenex business. Thanks for the reminder!

I don't know what was the typical way of expressing time in New York City in the fifties because I grew up in South Jersey (that's Southern *New* Jersey for the Brits). Maybe I should ask MOChassid. :) (See next post.)

Fri Mar 14, 04:54:00 PM 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For what it's worth: I grew up saying things like "ten to seven", and I still do so occasionally — but only other folks in my generation seem to do so.

Sat Mar 15, 08:32:00 PM 2008  
Blogger Shira Salamone said...

Geekosaur, it sounds as if *your* generation is also *my* generation, or within hailing distance thereof (I'm 59). I'm just a dinosaur, though: Being, apparently, incapable of reading a technical-gadget instruction manual without going cross-eyed (never mind computers--I go cross-eyed just trying to read a cell-phone manual :) ), I haven't had much luck picking up the geek part.

Sun Mar 16, 12:27:00 AM 2008  

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