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  • T. W. Emory

Old Technology Terms Die Hard.

I used to toy around with my mom’s portable typewriter when I was a kid—when she’d let me, that is, which wasn’t often, and not for very long. I asked her more than once to teach me how to type, but she insisted I should wait until I was older so that I didn’t pick up any bad habits. While my mom may have genuinely feared she’d do me more harm than good in showing me the ropes (since she’d had formal training as a young woman herself, and maybe doubted her ability to teach others), I suspected that she also didn’t want to bother with taking the time to give me some basic instructions. I finally learned to type when I took a typing class as a sophomore in high school. In contrast, given our Digital Age, my sons (like many of today’s youth, I’m sure), got their initial basic instruction in typing fairly early on and have been typing away for years, and continue doing so.

Although manual typewriters have seemingly disappeared from societal view, still, it appears that everyone is “typing” these days on some sort of computer keyboard or virtual one, while using various electronic devices. Though many today may not actually know the traditional “home keys” and simply choose to “hunt-and-peck” (especially when texting), they’re typing away nevertheless.

Though introduced in the previous decade, the typewriter didn’t become commonly used in offices until the mid-1880s. And while there were many variations in the early years, what’s called the “QWERTY” layout for the letter keys has become the de facto standard, and remains so. As the story goes, the QWERTY layout is an arrangement of the manual typewriter keys originally designed to reduce the likelihood of internal clashing and jamming of typebars by placing commonly used combinations of letters farther from each other inside the machine. Today’s keyboards for electronic devices have obviously eliminated those bothersome typebar entanglements that have gone the way of the Dodo Bird, right along with typewriter ribbons, carbon paper, erasable bond paper, and Wite-Out. And while the QWERTY key layout is not necessarily the most efficient layout in the English language, curiously its use persists. Thus, we have a definite case of something still being used even though the original reason for using it is no more. Also, as technology has developed, the terms habitually used to describe things continue in use even though what they originally described is no more.

For instance, consider how many of us still speak of “dialing” a phone number, when numbers are actually punched-in or keyed-in these days, and no actual “dialing” takes place anymore. You have to wonder, what with people now being able to simply speak into a device so that their words “magically” appear on a screen, that maybe the very act of manually typing on a keyboard is also on its way out and headed for extinction. Possibly the day will come (and perhaps it’s already here), when people will speak of “typing” when no actual “typing” is taking place. So it is that old terms seem to die harder than the defunct thing they once described. Any lingering doubts on this matter can be easily dispelled by giving thought to terms like, “hanging up,” “tuning in,” and “rewind.”

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