Ring in the New — With a Bit of the Old

January 5, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Last week, I learned a new word, skeuomorphism — a elements of a new technology that look like those of the old technology, elements that are now unnecessary. Virtual sticky notes for your computer screen or a push-button phone that looks like a rotary phone. The examples I found were all in design. But maybe skeuomorphism can apply to language as well.

Many of the stories about Trump’s recent phone call to Georgia referred to “tape.”

But there was no actual tape.

The call was recorded on some sort of electronic drive.

Radio journalists too use this term. They talk about “getting good tape” — audio quotes that will sound good. A 2019 Columbia Journalism Review article had the title “For the record: 18 journalists on how—or whether—they use tape recorders.” Some of those journalists refer to “recording” on a “device” or iPhone. But some use “tape” to mean 21st-century recording.

Is there a different word for this — using a word from an old technology even though that bit is no longer in use? And are there any other examples? I can think of only one. Musicians still sometimes talk about making “a record.” Not a recording, not an album, but a record.

Does  “cc” qualify? People still say, “I’ll cc you on that memo,” knowing full well that “cc” is an abbreviation for “carbon copy” and that there is no carbon paper involved. But “cc” has become a stand-alone term, now free of its finger-smudging origins. Nobody says, “Send me a carbon copy.”

The YouTube logo is an example of skeuomorphism in both design and language.

The image is shaped like the screen of an old television set, not a modern flat-screen. Those old TVs also used cathode-ray tubes. By the time YouTube came along (2005), nearly all TVs were flat-screens with square corners. And gone were the days when you might hear someone refer to “the tube” (or “the boob tube”)? Yet YouTube chose to retain both the word and the image of the old technology.

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