Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

Tag Archives: telephones

landline

(1990’s | “home phone”)

An old term in telephony, “landline” achieved its present status in the nineties, during the dawn of the cell phone era. Suddenly we needed a way to distinguish our home phone, which had up to then been known as a “phone,” from our portable phone, which has several different names (cellular, mobile, portable in French, Handy in German). That momentous shift forced this sleepy engineers’ term into prominence. It is used less often because fewer and fewer people have them now, but they haven’t disappeared, and the expression will remain in our vocabulary for another couple of generations, at least.

There is a corresponding shift in denotation, of course. Landline(s) used to refer to cables and wires, not the set connected to them that lives in our houses, or the ten-digit number that goes with it. The evolution is so natural as to seem inevitable, a classic metonymy. “Home phone” was already distinguished from “business (work) phone,” so it wasn’t well-suited to serve as an antonym for “cell phone” — never “cell line,” never “land phone.” The split is strange, but maybe it reflects how quickly and unquestioningly we adopted cell phones and the terminology that came with them. It is almost axiomatic that the change from the telephone as something that sits in one place to something you carry around with you and use whenever you want is fundamental, epoch-making. That’s true especially if you get stuck with a flat tire in a remote place, or break your leg on a wilderness hike, but in more general and comprehensive ways as well. The cell phone revolution, followed immediately by the smartphone revolution, has forced dramatic and relatively sudden changes in how we manage and conduct work, leisure, politics, social life, family relations — everything. Now that we are content to have smartphones run our lives, it’s hard to remember how different it all was.

“Landline” must carry cultural baggage, too, due to an ever-strengthening association with organizations and old people, representing stodginess or its friendlier cousin stability. Those under forty generally don’t have landlines because they are superfluous. I keep mine partly because it transmits sound more accurately than any cell phone I am likely to have, and my hearing isn’t getting any better. Also because I find the stationary telephone comforting, even natural; I still plan my communications sometimes as if landlines are all we have, though I know there are options in these latter days, and I have access to several of them. (When I was a kid, the only way you could carry the phone from one room to the next was if you had a really long cord; now people walk for miles pursuing animated conversations.) But I also know that some day my beloved landlines will disappear, as the fiber-optic cable ages and requires more trouble to maintain, and nevermore will we see the phone plugged into the wall — except when the battery is low.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

hard-wired

(1980’s | computerese? | “innate,” “(pre-)programmed,” “fixed,” “unalterable”)

The hard-wired smoke detector was already around in 1980; in that sense the term has not changed meaning since. “Hard-wired” meant connected directly to the building’s electrical system, meaning it was not powered by batteries, meaning that it would not infallibly begin making horrible chirping noises one morning at 3:00 and resist every sleep-fogged effort to silence it. A hard-wired telephone was similar in that it was harder to disconnect than the standard model you plug into a wall jack (already common in my youth, though far from universal). The cord connected to the system inside the wall rather than on the outside. Cable television might be hard-wired in that the cables connected to the source physically entered your house and attached themselves to a television set. Computer scientists had been using the term before that, generally to mean something like “automatic” or “built-in” — the only way to change it is to make a physical alteration to part of the equipment — and it remained firmly ensconced in the technical realm until the eighties. That’s when “hard-wired” became more visible, as computer jargon was becoming very hip. (PCMAG offers a current set of computer-related definitions.) In computer lingo, “hard-wired” came to mean “part of the hardware,” so “soft-wired” had to follow to describe a capability or process provided by software.

My father, erstwhile electrical engineer, pointed out that in his world, “hard-wired” was the opposite of “programmable.” In other words, the hard-wired feature did what it did no matter what; it couldn’t be changed simply by revising the code. Yet you don’t have to be too careless to equate “hard-wired” with “programmed” (see above) in the sense of predetermined. It’s not contradictory if you substitute “re-programmable” for “programmable,” but that requires an unusual level of precision, even for a techie. Every now and then you find odd little synonym-antonym confusions like that.

Still in wide technical use, this expression has reached its zenith in the soft sciences, in which it is commonly used to mean “part of one’s make-up,” with regard to instincts, reflexes, and basic capacities (bipedal walking, language, etc.), and more dubiously to describe less elemental manifestations such as behavior, attitude, or world-view. “Hard-wired” is not a technical term in hard sciences such as genetics or neurology. The usefulness of the expression is open to question: one team of psychologists noted, “The term ‘hard-wired’ has become enormously popular in press accounts and academic writings in reference to human psychological capacities that are presumed by some scholars to be partially innate, such as religion, cognitive biases, prejudice, or aggression . . . remarkably few psychological capacities in humans are genuinely hard-wired, that is, inflexible in their behavioral expression” (citation). Scientists may sniff at the term as used in pop psychology, but it does make for easy shorthand and probably won’t go away any time soon.

The reason we take so easily to applying the term “hard-wired” to the brain is that the computer, as developed over the last fifty years, forms the most comprehensive map yet for the workings of our minds. A contributing reason is the very common, casual linking of brain activity with electricity, as in referring to one’s “wiring” — even though one may also refer to one’s “chemistry” to explain mental quirks, probably a superior explanation. Watching a computer “think” helps us understand how our brains work, or maybe it just misleads us, causing us to disregard our own observations in order to define our own mentation with reference to the computer’s processing. There are obvious connections and obvious divergences; surely any device we concoct must reflect the workings of our own minds. But computers aren’t just for playing solitaire, calculating your tax refund, running a supercollider. They serve a humanistic function by giving us new ways to think about the old ways we think.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,