Hot and hard

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From Monday's NYT (Neil Amdur, "Asperger's Syndrome, on Screen and in Life", 8/3/2009):

“I wanted to tell a film about my friend,” Mr. Elliot, now 37 and an award-winning writer and director, said in a phone interview from Australia, where “Mary and Max” has grossed more than $1 million since its opening in April. “Asperger’s is a part of him; it’s the way he’s hot-wired. If I had ignored him, it would have offended him.”

Adam Elliot is Australian, and thus r-less. Neil Amdur is "a native of Wilkes-Barre, Pa.", and thus r-ful. "Strine" also has other phonetic differences from American English. So it's likely that the Australian filmmaker said "hard-wired" into the phone in Melbourne, and the American journalist heard and transcribed "hot-wired" at the other end of the line in New York.

Then again, maybe Mr. Elliot said "hot-wired", and Mr. Amdur accepted this without correction. However it happened, this looks like one for the eggcorn database.

Back in the old days, it used to be possible to "hot-wire" a car, i.e. start it without the key, by "connecting the two wires which complete the circuit when the key is in the 'on' position (turning on the fuel pump and other necessary components), then touching the wire that connects to the starter".

The OED traces this use to 1947:

1947 Frederick (Maryland) Post 12 July 1/2 The woman ‘hot wired’ the ignition system of a 1947 model automobile.
1949 Los Angeles Times 7 Nov. I. 10/1 After ‘hot-wiring’ the coupe to start it, the pair continued their roving junket.

The earliest citations for figurative uses are from 20 or 30 years later (though I'd be surprised if there weren't some earlier ones):

1968 R. BRAUTIGAN Pill versus Springhill Mine Disaster (1973) 17 You hotwire death, get in, and drive away.
1977 Time 29 Aug. 24/1 His high school classmates..watched, stunned, as their shy schoolmate hot-wired a class amateur show.

But hot-wiring won't work with newer cars, since 1985 or so, because of additional anti-theft safeguards in the form of steering-wheel locks and transponder circuits built into keys. So there's not much left but the metaphors. Thus Betsy Sholl's 1992 poem The Red Line:

… nothing the nuns ever said could answer the way
that boy's tongue hot-wired me.

And now that it's cut loose from its electromechanical origins, hot-wired is available for re-analysis, just like unbridled, free rein, and other horse-harness metaphors.

Similarly, in the olden days the cheapest way to make a machine respond in a complex way, or differentiate among complex alternative inputs, was to use hard-wired control: some clever circuit design (whether analog or digital) designed to respond to the right inputs or produce the right outputs. The OED's earliest citation for hard-wired is 1969:

1969 Mechanised Accounting Nov. 54/2 Central to the entire System 21 structure is the microprocessor and its various hard-wired microprograms.
1973 Sci. Amer. May 11 (Advt.), It computes in totally algebraic logic and is equipped with immediate-response hardwired functions.

1969 seems very late to me — but in any case, the term made sense only after there was an alternative in the form of stored-program (or plugboard?) control, so it couldn't have originated before the late 1940s.

Whenever it started, this term again led to an ample space of figurative usage, especially as a way of talking about instinctive behavior. The OED's first citation is from 1971:

1971 New Scientist 16 Sept. 615/2 These cells are hard-wired and ready for action as soon as the kitten opens its eyes.
1975 Sci. Amer. June 87/3 The product of ‘hard-wired’, or fixed, visual pathways originating at the retina and terminating in the cortex.

These days, it's almost always cheaper to use a general-purpose digital processor, and create the cleverly customized behavior with software. Still, the metaphorical usage remains alive and well:

… a woman uses about 20,000 words a day due to the fact that talking actually activates the pleasure centres in a woman's brain whereas men use only 7,000 because they are programmed to be laconic […]  if a woman's brain has unique chemical and structural characteristics that underpin traits such as compassion, empathy and loquaciousness, then one might have to consider the possibility that the modern male is struggling to be caring and empathetic because he is 'hard-wired' to be emotionally reserved and uncommunicative. [Rebecca Feasey, Masculinity and Popular Television (2009), citing Louann Brizendine]

Both hot-wired and hard-wired are floating free, released from their real-world roots. So it's not surprising that an Australian filmmaker and and American journalist might get confused, individually or together, about whether someone's metaphorical wiring is hot or hard.

[Hat tip: John V Burke]

[Update —  a bit of web searching was able to antedate "hard-wired" a bit, to 1966 Aero/space Computer Symposium, October 24-25, 1966, Miramar:

The memory system is a partially hard-wired, partially scratchpad, 18 bit, 5 microsecond cycle time, ferrite core type. This memory can be assigned to varying ratios of scratchpad versus fixed as required by the individual task. It is currently half hard-wired and half scratchpad. It is convertible to a 512 scratchpad and 3584 words of hard-wired core (or anything between).

The metadata is a mess (as is all too typical of Google Books, alas) but the title seems to make a date of 1966 pretty clear. And a search for the combination of "patch panel" and "hard-wired" turns up a likely (but restricted candidate) that Google Books amusingly classifies under "religion":

Unfortunately, the date of 1948 is no more trustworthy than the classification is…

This document apparently antedates hard-wired to 1964:

It is proposed in this report to build a square-root digital computer for a hard-wired special purpose airborne application where speed and simplicity are prime in importance

But the lack of quotation marks suggests that the term was then already in common use. ]

[Update #2 — a search of Google's patent database turns up Edward C. Dowling, "Sequential bit binary detector circuit and system", assigned to AMP corporation, filed Nov. 6, 1963, which uses "hard wired" several times, e.g.

…it is to be understood that with certain types of components such as transistors or magnetic cores, the units 76-82 may be dispensed with and hard wired conductive paths linking the bit positions to accomplish either a ONE or ZERO input may be employed.

No earlier patent texts seem to use this term (leaving out one hit allegedly from 1903, which turns out to be faulty metadata again, having really been filed in 1968).]

[Update #3 — the earliest legal citation for hot wired that I could find in LexisNexis was Brubaker v. United States, August 10, 1950:

While seeking to arrest defendant's companion on an unrelated charge, police saw the two men park a car at a tavern in Tennessee. Closer inspection revealed that the car had no ignition key. When approached in the tavern, defendant and his companion denied any knowledge of the car or each other. Defendant also denied any knowledge of two revolvers found in a suitcase in the car. After police determined that the car had been hot-wired and was stolen from its owner in California, defendant was charged with violating the Dyer Act. The evidence at trial included, inter alia, the guns that were found in the car.

So I'm tentatively convinced that the term hot wired was invented in the late 1940s. This seems a bit surprising, given that cars were made with self-starters and (I believe) ignition locks from 1920 or so onwards.]


  1. Chris Hunt said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 11:02 am

    What attracted my interest in that quote was: "I wanted to tell a film…"

    I can see that he wanted to tell a story, and that he wanted to make a film; but wanting to "tell a film"? Is that a common phrase over there?

  2. jfruh said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    Somewhat amsuingly, techies will now sometimes use "hard-wired" to refer to software that is written inflexibly. For instance, if the values of certain variables are written into the code itself, rather than solicited from the user when the program is run, then those values are said to be "hard-wired in." "Hard-coded" is more common, but I have seen the "hard-wired" variant.

  3. Mark P said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 11:39 am

    I noticed "tell a film" and at first thought some words had been swapped. I read it to mean "tell a friend about a film." It took a second reading to get the meaning.

    It would be interesting if Elliot had actually said "hot-wired." I'm old enough to know the origin of "hot wired", and it's hard for me to figure out exactly what that expression in that context would mean. It seems to me that the meaning of "hard wired" is pretty accessible to anyone today, while the original connotations of "hot wired" might not be as much to people not familiar with old ignition systems. Thus I could see "hot wired" drifting from its original connotations.

    @jfruh: We use "hard wired" for inflexible coding.

  4. Jim said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    "it’s the way he’s hot-wired. "
    "while the original connotations of "hot wired" might not be as much to people not familiar with old ignition systems."

    Yeah. I was thinking he'd been stlen by the repo man.

  5. Faldone said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    I have a scrap of paper floating loose in the back of my Junk Drawer Memory™ that seems to have written on it a note that suggests that the distinction in hard-wired was originally something that had wires that were soldered in place rather than connected through a patch-board of some sort.

    [(myl) Yes, I'm pretty sure that I remember this usage with respect to telephone equipment (where plugboards and patch panels have been around since the last half of the 19th century). But surprisingly, I can't find any pre-1966 quotations to back this up.]

  6. Boris said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    It doesn't sound right to me either way. Talking about the way something (or someone) is hard-wired (or hot-wired) makes no sense outside the original meaning in technical descriptions (here's how you hard-wire X to do Y).

    In my vocabulary the figurative senses would only permit someone to be hard-wired to do something or hot-wired without a modifier (though personally, I would be hard pressed to think of a use of "hot-wired" outside its original meaning. I guess it's supposed to be synonym for "turned on", but it just sounds weird to me)

    Also, I am a programmer and find hard-wired as a synonym for hard-coded as sounding weird. In my head, only people can be hard-wired, as opposed to being able to think about something consciously. Saying this about code implies some sort of sentience or something.

  7. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    Note that Brautigan's '68 metaphorical use of hot wire is part of an extended and overt automotive metaphor. Something more like the Betsy Scholl usage can be seen in the punk rock song "Hot Wire My Heart" (original version by Crime released 1976; probably better known in the 1987 version by Sonic Youth). But since "stealing my/your/x's heart" was already a long-standing cliche, it was probably easy to get to by extension from that direction, especially since both heat and electricity also had well-established metaphorical significance in erotic and/or romantic contexts.

  8. Doug Sundseth said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    Mostly OT:

    "But hot-wiring won't work with newer cars, since 1985 or so, because of additional anti-theft safeguards in the form of transponder circuits built into the key."

    True for a few vehicles, but most keys do not have a transponder of any sort. Unless I'm mistaken, the big change was including a steering-wheel lock that required the key to be turned to enable steering. (With the application of enough force, this lock can be broken.)

    [(myl) Yes, absolutely — I've adjusted the post to reflect this point.]

  9. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 2:04 pm

    This one is reminiscent of barbed wire » bobwire, an early entry in the Eggcorn Database. (See the ECDB's r-dropping category for more eggcorns across the rhotic divide.)

  10. Joe said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 2:19 pm

    Minor correction: It's Betsy Sholl

  11. dr pepper said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 2:20 pm

    Hot wire to your car's ignition
    Two sticks of dynamite

    I forget the title, but it's a punks song from the late 70's. In this case the term "hot wire" just means finding a wire that will be activated when the key is turned. I suspect that goes all the way back to the original electronics usage, ie a hot wire is one that ultimately comes from the power source as opposed to being grounded.

  12. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 2:35 pm

    @Boris: I’m a programmer and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen “hardwired” in the field (it doesn’t feel weird to me either). Google searches such as “hardwired constant”, “hardwired software”, “hardwired code” &c. return plenty of meaningful results.

  13. Mark F said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 3:11 pm

    The "Strine" file made no sense to me until I started thinking like a non-rhotic speaker. It's also interesting because it was published in Australia. My first assumption would have been that Australians would think of their own accents as neutral, and would have to make a conscious effort to read the phrases as if spoken in RP in order to get the joke. But then, there have been "How to Talk Southern" books sold in the Southeastern US that are basically the same, except that General American is the relevant "neutral accent". I don't think you could sell a "How to Talk American" book in the US, or a "How to talk British" book in Britain.

  14. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    I saw a news report once about an Australian aircraft crash that said, "the lightest information is that several passengers were killed." I sent a copy to a bloke I knew at the AUS embassy in DC and he didn't think it was the least bit funny.

  15. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    My son, in his late twenties, has been amazed, whenever I've been amazed he's made perfect use of some bygone word. I want to credit his native genius, or at least his costly education, but he won't let me. He claims "everybody knows this stuff" and he probably "read it in on the 'web or something".

  16. Robert Young said,

    August 5, 2009 @ 6:24 pm

    As an Australian:

    Hot-wired is not common here so I would guess that he said "hard wired". "tell a film" sounds very odd to me, so I would like to hear the audio of that to hear what was said.

  17. jess said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:28 am

    "tell a film" is not common here. I believe it is simply a play on "tell a story". Perhaps an attempt to portray film-making as serious an intellectual endeavour as story-telling (as in written stories I imagine).

  18. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    "Perhaps an attempt to portray film-making as serious an intellectual endeavour as story-telling (as in written stories I imagine)."

    Or just an equation of the two mediums? Story telling doesn't have to be serious. It's not a hugely common usage, but it's one that filmmakers use a lot.

  19. Reminiscer 5000 said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 9:03 am

    I once explained a certain work habit to a former boss as being "hard-wired" into my brain, and thus hard to change. One day he mockingly reminded me of my words… except he said "hot-wired into your brain". So this eggcorn is quite familiar to me.

    He also turned my phrase "scarf down some lunch" into "scoff down some lunch". Thankfully he was in a field where numbers are more important than a good command of English (his mother tongue, don't you know).

  20. Faldone said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 10:11 am

    He also turned my phrase "scarf down some lunch" into "scoff down some lunch". lists scarf in this sense as a variant of scoff so which is the eggcorn?

  21. Reminiscer 5000 said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    Ah, I see what you're referring to. I suppose I have some egg(corn) on my face. Well, in my halfhearted defense, Americans never use "scoff" in that sense, so for my boss to change "scarf" to "scoff" was still an eggcorn in and of itself. But it's actually interesting to see that, like some chemical processes, eggcorns can be reversible, isn't it?

  22. JimG said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    Ahh, recency!

    Hot-wiring involved finding and baring a short bit of a "hot" wire from the battery of the car, fastening it into contact with the ignition circuit of the car, and then making brief contact between the hot wire and a similar bare section of the wire running from the ignition key switch to the starter of the car, inducing the starter to turn the engine.

    Hard-wiring wasn't an issue in machines, etc, until they began to incorporate controls that involved discretion, some sort of processing or calculation, and their attendant complication and delay. Hard-wiring the machine to perform a single function avoided the issues by discarding the options. Communications radios of the 1930s and 1940s often had circuits or controls to change the tuner setting along a frequency band, but some also had a switch position that put a hard-wired discrete-frequency crystal in place of the variable tuner.

    [(myl) With respect, I think that this last is not quite right. Switchboards (where patch cords could be used to make arbitrary pair-wise interconnections) were in routine use in telephony by the 1880s (the first commercial telephone switchboard was installed in New Haven CT in January of 1878). But at the same time, some connections were fixed, and not routed through such a switching board. So as of 1880 or so, there was a clear distinction between fixed and switchable connections — and the term "hard-wired" might have been used for the fixed connections. As far as I can tell, though, it wasn't.]

  23. Ant said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    @Mark F

    "Australians would think of their own accents as neutral, and would have to make a conscious effort to read the phrases as if spoken in RP in order to get the joke."

    I don't think the Strine series (there were several books which had quite a cult following) actually (or egg jelly) depend on reading in RP. To my Aussie ears, most of the jokes depend on phonetic distinctions /within/ Australian English that get lost when speaking fast and/or in a "broader" accent.

    For instance, you have to announce the traditional breakfast dish Baked Necks /in/ an Australian accent — careful enunciation, so that the d is articulated, ruins the joke. Similarly, there are multiple entries, like the aforemetioned egg jelly, relying on the fact that the "short a" vowel [{] as in "back" often raises to something close to "short e" [e] as in "beck" (although not too close, otherwise you'll sound like a Kiwi), which in turn is usually a shorter version of [e:] as in "bear". So it's a bit different from the "Hahvahd" shirts you can buy in Boston, for instance: it's not the fact that broad Aussie pronunciation sounds like something else in some other English dialect that's funny so much as that it sounds like something else in the same accent.

  24. Philip D. said,

    August 6, 2009 @ 7:49 pm

    This is definitely not the first time I've come across this eggcorn. I've heard a song called "Hot-Wired" where the refrain goes "Baby I'm hot-wired to your love"

  25. Emma said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 12:29 am

    The Strine thing is built on generations of Australians who felt insecure and ashamed of Australian accents and attempted to move their own pronunciation closer to RP, if not all the way. Hence the inglorious distinction between 'educated' Australian accents and others, and the widespread attendance at elocution classes in the middle of the twentieth century. This has mercifully declined in importance, as has laughing and pointing fun at Australians with broad accents. There are Australian historians working on this aspect of Australian culture, though I don't know about linguists. See here for some of the best work on it. Alastair Ardoch Morrison, aka Afferbeck Lauder, who wrote Strine, also wrote books poking fun at English accents, including Fraffly Well Spoken. I would link, but it seems I'm only allowed one. Wikipedia covers him.

  26. Emma said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 12:43 am

    I should add that I experienced the influence of 'Strine' personally — being called Emma in Australia in 1961 was quite unusual. I found that many of my friends' parents thought it very comical to call me 'Emma Chisit', Strine's version of 'How much is it'. I learned to smile politely.

  27. Janice Huth Byer said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 2:43 pm

    Re: "I wanted to tell a film about my friend," Mr. Eliot…an award-winning writer and director said…"

    Might "wanted to tell a film" be Mr. Eliot's modest way of expressing his precise ambition to write and direct a script for it? To have "wanted to make a film" implies a desire to have produced it.

  28. Mark F. said,

    August 7, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    Ant — well put. When I think about it, I really had to read the phrases in my best mental Australian accent (which isn't very good) to get them.

    The analogous Southern (i.e., Southeastern US) jokes may be similar, but I think the accent is less distinctive than Australian.

  29. felix said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 6:34 am

    The nature of Australian English these days does not relate to the phenomenon known as Strine.It, in fact, remains part of a general mythology about Australian English, that the open vowel sounds predominate and all Australians speak like this. However, this was so in 1964 when the Strine phenomenon was probably at its most well known, for beyond that date there have been far more wide reaching influences from American English and that mid Atlantic mixture of North London/Pseudo New York. Australians in country towns still speak the Irish/English base of language with the open vowel but Strine is hardly heard today in the capital cities.One should be very careful to ascribe a mythology to a place where that mythology has been superceded by the influence of teh predominate "Television English" (Felix, Canberra Australia)

  30. Mark F. said,

    August 22, 2009 @ 10:25 pm

    I just finished watching the DVD of Children of Men, and one of the extra features began with Alfonso Cuaron saying "Part of the reasons we choose to tell Children of Men in very fluid long takes was to take advantage of the element of real time." So that's another example of of a director using the word "tell" with a movie. Reading back over the comments, I see that Ginger Yellow has already said it's a common usage among filmmakers, but here's another specific example.

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