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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | computerese | “blueprint,” “model,” “example”)

A word that had one or two narrow meanings for a long time that turns up everywhere now. It comes out of architecture, where it originally meant a horizontal weight-bearing beam. It was originally spelled templet, and a few people, like me, still pronounce it that way, but you hear it often with equal stress on both syllables, the second syllable pronounced with a long “a.”

The word acquired a specific meaning in the nineteenth century that persists into the twenty-first, although it is no longer primary. A template was a guide or form along which one guided a pencil, drill, or saw to make precision cuts or drawings. In other words, it was a fancy stencil. While it turned up often in industrial and home-improvement contexts, there were humbler domestic examples, like sewing patterns or cookie cutters. Then there were a couple of more specialized senses. “Template” could mean a three-dimensional scale model, such as a model of a room in which each piece of furniture was sized and placed precisely. In the oil industry, a template is a platform laid on the ocean floor which guides the drills and is connected to the drilling apparatus above. In chemistry, it was (and is) the “recipe” a cell follows to replicate itself. Occasionally it meant a standard against which something was measured, usually literally. As late as 1980, these definitions were what we invoked when we used the word.

Now, “template” has no end of extent. Here’s a recent implausible example, from the New York Times (March 17, 2012): “the experience [of Irish immigrants in the 1840’s] established a stereotype, a template, applied ever since to whichever national or ethnic group happened to be the latest impoverished arrivals.” The prejudice and abuse good Americans heaped on the Irish back then continues to guide us in dealing with all those who came after. (And they say Americans don’t know anything about history.) There remains a resemblance to the old sense of guide or form, but in a much less concrete way. Another common contemporary example describes Mitt Romney’s health care law in Massachusetts as a template for Obama’s federal plan passed in 2010. Here is a fine example of “template” used the way we used to say “blueprint.” The administration followed the outlines of the state plan and adopted many of the same proposals. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the idea of a stencil, but it also harks back to the sense of a scale model.

What’s changed? Now when you think of a template, you don’t think of an object any more; it’s abstract. Politicians and planners use it a lot — any kind of public policy that can be adopted or imitated where people are trying to solve a similar problem is called a template. Every temporarily successful stratagem is so crowned, and others are urged to adopt it without considering whether it will work under completely different conditions.

Back in the awful eighties, the growing allure of computerese gave “template” its entrée into everyday speech. It had two separate meanings. One was a printed guide to keyboard commands (no mice back then, remember, kids) that you laid out alongside the function keys so you didn’t have to remember what alt-F4 does in this software. It’s an odd use of the term: the idea of laying the guide over the work area is retained, but it’s more like a crib sheet than a form. Another meaning erupted at the same time, as glossed in American Banker (October 25, 1989): “A spreadsheet with formulas and text already entered for a specific use. Example: IRS Form 1040 set up for use with SuperCalc, a spreadsheet program.” It didn’t have to involve spreadsheets, of course, any software could come with built-in forms that turned complicated tasks into fill-in-the-blanks. This sense has paved the way for our ubiquitous usage, but what exactly is it about this meaning of “template” that has taken over? It’s the prefab quality. All you have to do is enter some data and the template does the work, whether it’s getting your taxes ready or displaying a web page or designing a health-care system. The real work has been done by the programmer or designer or think-tank wizard, and you don’t mess with that part. If the template is the Massachusetts health-care plan, the federal government has to put in different information, but the basic moves are already there — the ways the plan crunches the numbers (and gathers them in the first place), the policy prescriptions, the legal requirements, etc. — and you stick in your data and pull out a multi-volume federal law. It’s not quite as simple as what we used to call “crank-turning” in math class, but that’s what it boils down to.

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