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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

user friendly

(1980’s | computerese | “easy to use or learn,” “accommodating,” “welcoming”)

Somewhere around 1980, lots of people started writing about the imperative of making the computer — whose rise was, by acclaim, inevitable and unstoppable — into a device that laypersons could operate. Much was said about the developers and programmers, lost in their own little world, unable to design a computer so the rest of us could use it without going stark staring mad. Strides have been made, but we are still talking today about software geniuses who just don’t understand how to make nifty new features readily available to non-experts. At least as much effort must be expended to adapt technological advances to the limitations of the average computerphobe as to create the advances themselves. (And all that effort must have paid off, because today, no one is ever stymied, balked, or thrown by a computer, right?) The phrase “user friendly” (often spelled as two words, though it ought to be hyphenated, at least according to this grumpy grammarian) bloomed when this kind of talk became prevalent thirty years ago.

A curious point about this expression: it did not turn up at all in LexisNexis before 1980. (The word was in use before then, of course, mainly among those writing about computer hardware and operating systems.) Both the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post described “user friendly” as a “buzzword” in 1980, however. Such an unheralded leap into prominence is unusual. It was not unusual to see “user friendly” glossed in the early eighties; sometimes it was placed in quotation marks, but that was not the rule. By the end of the decade, the expression applied not just to gadgets like computers, cars, and toys, but to airports, parks, police stations –- almost any place that provided an amenity of some kind or that people had to find their way around. It was already turning up in reviews describing a novel or a band’s music (where it meant “accessible” or “easily grasped”). George Will, in 1989, used “user friendly” to describe a cat; he seems to have meant “affectionate.”

Beneath the rapid growth of the expression lies a change in the force of the word “user.” In my youth, it meant “exploiter” (someone who takes advantage of someone else) or “one who ingests illegal drugs” (“Users are losers” came along later, but that sense was already current). It was a malignant word, almost always bearing a negative connotation. But the computer revolution changed all that. “User” has become a neutral term, applied to anyone looking at your web site or opening up your software. We talk about “user interfaces” and “user statistics” very casually. No hint of the revulsion with which the word was imbued a scant forty years ago.

Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, for all I know since the beginnings of agriculture, a gap has persisted between the creators of new technology and the ultimate operators to whom it trickles down. The assembly line is one way to adapt the grunt laborers to technological advance, but in more enlightened times, we prefer to adapt the advances to the laborers and make a wider range of functions and effects available with less effort. In the computer era, it seems like we have been talking more about this sort of thing than we used to; more experts have worked harder to bring all those time- and labor-saving features down to our level. In other words, the computer is more complex, more alien, than the internal combustion engine or the cathode-ray tube — still another indication that the personal computer marks a new plateau in the uneasy relationship between ourselves and our technology.

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