Opinion | ‘Meatspace’? Technology Does Funny Matters to Language

To rejoice April Fools’ Working day I have tried out to have some pleasurable in this publication, which include in the option of reader mail and the estimate of the working day. Everything’s legitimate, nevertheless — no fooling.

I’m fascinated by what the evolution of language tells us about financial progress in excess of the years. In concentrating on language I’m paying out homage to my incisive Belief colleague John McWhorter as well as the great William Safire, who for a long time wrote the “On Language” column in The New York Instances Magazine. The variation is I’ll try out to keep connected to my principal subject, economics.

Consider this coinage: meatspace. It refers basically to the actual physical environment, exactly where we have tangible bodies made of … meat. “Meatspace” is a phrase that didn’t have to have to exist till the creation of cyberspace. Technological development presents us a new perspective on matters we at the time took for granted, in this situation fact alone.

“I.C.E. vehicle” (pronounced “ice”) is equivalent. I.C.E. is limited for inner combustion motor, a modifier that was superfluous until eventually electric powered cars came on the scene. Like meatspace, it’s what the journalist Frank Mankiewicz known as a “retronym” — a new time period which is invented for something aged mainly because the original term has turn out to be ambiguous, commonly for the reason that of some advancement this kind of as a technological progress.

There are a lot of lists of retronyms on the world-wide-web. Amongst my favorites, every revealing society’s development in some way or yet another: incandescent gentle bulb (necessitated by fluorescent, LED, etcetera.) landline mobile phone analog check out Euclidean geometry challenging copy vacuum tube radio (as opposed to transistor radio — although who bothers specifying “transistor” radio anymore?).

Contrary to retronyms, “infrastructure” is an outdated word that retains acquiring questioned to do a lot more operate. It began as a expression from French railroad engineering referring to the layers of materials that go beneath (“infra”) the tracks. Its that means expanded to include roads, bridges, sewers and ability traces, and really not long ago expanded again to incorporate folks, specifically caregivers, as in this point sheet from the Biden White Home past calendar year, which explained, “The president’s program makes sizeable investments in the infrastructure of our treatment financial system, starting up by building new and much better positions for caregiving staff.”

Our language preserves aged strategies of living as undoubtedly as amber preserves long-lifeless insects or volcanic ash preserved ancient Pompeii. We nevertheless “cc:” folks on e-mails even while progressively several of us have ever designed carbon copies on a typewriter (I have). We “copy and paste” text, scarcely mindful that precise fragrant paste employed to be concerned. I recently uncovered that uppercase and lowercase letters got their names from genuine wood instances of lead that were being employed by compositors for printing. People today however speak about “dialing” phone quantities even nevertheless phones never have dials, and “rolling up” auto home windows even though hand cranks are prolonged long gone.

Along those people lines, it’s incredible that very well into the 21st century we’re continue to describing the strength of our cars and vans in comparison to the ability of horses. That utilization traces back to James Watt, the Scottish inventor who created a much better steam motor in the late 18th century and when compared it to a horse, because in people times horses and pulleys had been employed to carry buckets of water out of flooded coal mines.

Engineering has leapt in advance because the 18th century but the English language hasn’t, at least when it will come to describing the electricity of engines. One horsepower, by the way, equals 746 watts — and indeed, watt is named following James Watt.

Not all complex terminology has horsepower’s being electric power. In economics, for illustration, “priming the pump” utilised to be a perfectly-recognized phrase for what now we simply call stimulus. A typical pump will not operate if there is air in the pump or the line to it. You have to pour h2o into it — to “prime” it — just before you can get drinking water out. In an period when folks have been much more familiar with pumps, it produced perception to them that the govt would sometimes need to pour some dollars into the economic climate to get it performing and pump a great deal extra revenue out. That metaphor is considerably less intuitively persuasive these days.

Flat-display screen, high-definition colour TVs are just TVs nowadays. Ballpoint pens are just pens. And just before extensive, self-driving electric powered cars and trucks will be just cars and trucks. Time and technologies march on.


In studying your March 25 e-newsletter on the economist Clifford Winston, a believer in totally free marketplaces, I imagined of this outdated joke: An engineer and an economist are stuck in a deep hole in the floor. Right after various hours the engineer states, “I just just can’t determine out a way to get us out of right here.” The economist turns to him and states, “It’s quick! To start with, assume a ladder….”

Allan Kemp

Littleton, Colo.


“Asking me now to generate on how I sense about economics journals is like inquiring a lamppost to compose a memoir on canine.”

— Philip Mirowski, “The Easy Economy of Science?” (2004)

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