Insert other end

« previous post | next post »

Sticking a label on a manila file of household papers this morning I noticed that the instructions on the sheet of labels said "Insert opposite end into typewriter." It wasn't so much the ridiculous controllingness that made me smile (the labels had no header strip, so they were symmetrical, and it would make absolutely no difference if you used the sheet one way up rather than the other); it was the quaint old lexical item typewriter. I wonder what young people would think of that advice, if they ever read the instructions on anything (they don't, of course; they learn the operating systems of their new cellphones by intuition). A typewriter? When did I last even see one? It was like coming upon a word like "spats" or "snuffbox" or "inkwell" in a modern business context. I wonder if the wording will survive unnoticed on every sheet of labels manufactured by that company until the phrase has become a sort of dead metaphor or incomprehensible incantation.

Thinking about the pace of change in office products (anyone want a box of unused floppy diskettes?) has reminded me that in revising the third (1979) edition of Strunk and White's obnoxious little volume of vapid guidance and grammatical ignorance The Elements of Style to make the fourth edition (long after White's death), they spotted the phrase "ink erasers" in some of the irrelevant babbling in White's chapter 5, and changed it to the phrase "toner cartridges" in a desperate attempt to hide the fact that this zombie of a book is showing its age. (As I may occasionally have remarked here before, my opinion is that Strunk's little book was never much good, and the horrible E. B. White update of it is now half a century beyond its use-by date; if you want a detailed linguistic analysis of why the book is such crap, I give one here, and for a shorter volley of abuse see the Chronicle of Higher Education article here).


  1. MattF said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    "Daddy, why is writing with a keyboard called 'typing'?"

  2. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 11:24 am

    I'm probably part of the last generation to learn to type on typewriters. Remember how (if you're right-handed) it could be physically difficult on some typewriters to type the letter "A" — since you're striking it with your left pinky, the weakest of all your fingers? (Also "Q" and "Z", but they come up less often.)

    Recently I referred to a small personal stereo with headphones as a "Walkman", and immediately felt old after doing so.

  3. Dan T. said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 11:33 am

    Why is making a phone call called "dialing"?

  4. Peter Harvey said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    cc in emails stands for carbon copy.

  5. Sili said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    And why is calling someone called 'dialing'?

    I'd rather like to find a working typewriter. I think it'd help me use my pinkies more when typing.



  6. Doctor Science said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    SCENE: It is approximately 1997. I have taken my two children, ages 8 and 1, into the church library for a break during services. The room is full of books, tables for drawing on, pamphlets, hymnals — and, over in the corner, an IBM Selectric typewriter.

    I point to the typewriter and ask the 8-year-old if she knows what that object is.

    She furrows her brow and says, "some kind of … printer?"

    But I think they both now find "dialing" more mysterious than typewriters.

  7. Army1987 said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 12:57 pm

    "They don't, of course; they learn the operating systems of their new cellphones by intuition." So I guess I'm no longer a youngster, since I'm still trying to fully figure out how to use the phone my sister gave me for Christmas.
    Or are modern cellphones too complicated? My seven-years old Nokia 3330 still works perfectly, anyway…
    (As for pinky fingers, even with modern computer keyboards it's very hard to type at a decent speed with an Italian keyboard without accidentally ending every other line with ù, due to a brain-dead layout.)

  8. Erik said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    I still use a typewriter with those little file folder labels. I like the way it looks, better than my handwriting, and there is no simple way to get a computer to do it.

  9. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

    I fear I am a bit of an anachronism, in that I learned to type on a computer, but used a typewriter not infrequently when I was younger. Alas, a decade at the bottom of my closet rendered it unusable, but it saw use as recently as the mid 90s. Of course, I'm probably older than the relevant generation, because the computers I learned to type on ran DOS.

  10. Jen said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    What they meant by "insert opposite end" was to insert the back part of the label into the roller so the side you type on comes out in front!

    [Naaah. There's a difference between "end" and "side". —GKP]

  11. Alan Gunn said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 1:38 pm

    My son threatened to buy me a typewriter if I kept messing up his emailed instructions about how to download a program he had recommended. As it happens, though, I still have one, now 43 years old. It's been useful for filling out forms than have to be done on paper, rather than on a computer screen. There are fewer of these every year, though.

    Leroy Anderson once wrote a charming piece of music mimicking the sound of a roomful of typewriters. I wonder what young people make of it.

  12. Kutsuwamushi said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 1:47 pm

    One of my Korean textbooks still has the word for "typewriter" in it. In fact, you learn it before the word for "computer." The textbook was published after 2000. I thought it was funny, but it started a classroom discussion about what a Korean typewriter–and then a Chinese typewriter–looked like!

    (At least everyone knew what a typewriter was.)

    I also used a typewriter when I was younger, even though we had a computer and printer, because I liked the mechanical quality of it. Now I think I'm so accustomed to easy corrections that using a typewriter would just be frustrating.

  13. Bobbie said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    Mommy, what does clock-wise mean? I look at the display of numbers but I never see anything going around!

  14. TB said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    Whenever I find an office supply store that still has typewriter ribbons, I try to buy their whole stock. They're usually completely coated in dust. By now I have a pretty good supply, but still, I find I ration my typewriter use to only such projects as really need that 20th-Century flavor.

  15. John Thayer Jensen said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 2:52 pm

    I still have my slide rule and abacus (though it has been a while since I used them :-))

    What interests me is that the first occurrence of some new technology tends to become iconic. An icon of a telephone in somebody's PowerPoint slide tends to be a dial telephone; of a railroad train, a steam train.


  16. Jen said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 3:13 pm

    What is a dial telephone? [serious question] Do you mean a rotary telephone? Because when you use a touch-tone phone, you still "dial the numbers", just as I still "turn the channel" on my TV. A young person challenged me on "turn the channel". Do young people not use that term?

  17. Richard Sabey said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

    >"Daddy, why is writing with a keyboard called 'typing'?"

    And when the computer writes it on paper, why's that called printing? And why's the save-icon a square with a white patch near the top?

    @Army1987 Well, if you've got into the habit of going for the hash key when you wanted the return key, that's your own look out. :-)

  18. John Thayer Jensen said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    I finally, only a couple of years ago, got my wife out of the habit, in typing her e-mails, of using a lower-case 'l' as a numeral '1' – the sort of typewriter she and I learned to type on – in the 1950s – had no numeral '1'


  19. IrrationalPoint said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 3:48 pm


    "just as I still "turn the channel" on my TV. A young person challenged me on "turn the channel". Do young people not use that term?"

    My significant other talks about "turning it over to the other side", which of course refers not only to the telly having a turning knob that has to be tuned like a radio (and the radio that has to be tuned is shortly to become outdated in the UK as we see the advent of digital transmission), but also to a time when the UK had only 2 terrestrial channels. It used to confuse me no end.


  20. Lazar said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    As a 20 year old, I don't find "turn the channel" too unfathomable, but I think I exclusively say "change the channel".

  21. Bob Moore said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 5:04 pm

    Well, I was in my 30s before I lived in a house where the TV did not have rotary tuning knobs, but I don't think I have ever said "turn the channel". However, "turn to (NP denoting a channel)" is a familiar idom, although I believe I have always preferred "change the channel" or "change to (NP denoting a channel)".

  22. Ellen K. said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

    Yes, we still use the term "dial", but the term originates from the rotation involved in dialing. And it makes sense to refer to a phone with an actual dial as a dial phone, even if they are also called rotary phones.

  23. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    If I heard the phrase "turn the channel" I would assume it's some sort of adaptation of the phrase "turn on/off the tv", or maybe "turn to chapter 7". I've mostly forgotten that TVs ever had anything to physically turn on them, except maybe a volume knob. ("Turn up/down the volume" is perfectly normal – perhaps there are still volume knobs elsewhere? Maybe ones that go to 11?)

  24. Ben said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    I'm in my late 20s and my experience is the same as Bob Moore's. Everyone in my peer group (myself included) says "Change the channel".

    "Turn the channel" just sounds weird to me.

    "Turn to X", on the other hand, sounds fine to me. But I would never say it myself–I would say "Change to X".

  25. Rubrick said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 7:26 pm

    Even on a modern computer keyboard, archaism prevails. Leaving aside the QWERTY layout itself, look at the names of all those keys: shift, tab, return, control, escape… how many 14-year-olds have the slightest idea why those are named what they are? They've become entirely arbitrary labels.

    In the world of juggling, we classify "feeds" (where one person is throwing in sequence to several others) as "windshield wiper" or "typewriter", depending on whether the sequence is 1-2-3-2-1 or 1-2-3-1-2-3 (note the "carriage return"). At some point I realized we'd erected a generational barrier with this terminology.

  26. Peter McAndrew said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 7:28 pm

    Don't forget – the longest English word which can be typed using only one row of the typewriter keyboard is typewriter.

  27. Kylopod said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 7:34 pm

    Come on, typewriter isn't that out of date. I'm 33 and remember them. Kids and 20-somethings today might have no direct memory, but there's still a substantial segment of the populace who have used a typewriter at some point in their lives.

    Slide rules, on the other hand…

  28. IrrationalPoint said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 7:52 pm

    "they spotted the phrase "ink erasers" in some of the irrelevant babbling in White's chapter 5, and changed it to the phrase "toner cartridges" in a desperate attempt to hide the fact that this zombie of a book is showing its age."

    It seems somewhat strange to me that an editor would chose to remove/replace phrases that date a text, as if the date and linguistic context of the writing of the text were not relevant. It always annoys me when I spot "Americanization" changes that have been made in US editions of books written in the UK (or vice versa). What's the problem with books sounding like they were written at the place and time in which they were written? I'm sure many a 19th century novel could be made more hip if the word "letter" were replaced with "iPhone texting", but what could possibly be the point?


  29. Karen said,

    February 7, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    Well, S&W is attempting to refute the charge that it's dated, rather than being a period novel or what-have-you. Different motives.

  30. Ben said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:10 am

    In the underdeveloped world, typewriters are pretty commonplace. When I got my driver's license in Nepal, the license was typed out; and while computers are in evidence in government offices, forms are filled out, with carbon paper in triplicate, on a typewriter. Whether these will go the way of the dodo anytime soon is unclear to me.

  31. Aviatrix said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 2:46 am

    The icon is not the original instance, it's always ten or twenty years behind the times. A "no cellphones" icon nowadays is a big clunky satphone thing. The garbage can icon (check the back of an electronic item like a TV remote) is now the wheelie bin instead of the old Oscar the Grouch bin, but we don't yet have the antigravity hoverbins.

  32. Jeffrey Shallit said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 7:18 am

    Actually, "typewriter" is not the only 10-letter word that can be formed from the letters in one row of the keyboard – there are several others listed in the OED, including "perpetuity". And the OED also gives two other 11-letter words that can be so formed: "proprietory" and "rupturewort".

  33. Graeme said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 8:21 am

    Two laptops and two iphones in this house.

    But we dug out the old electric typewriter when our seven year old declared she was ready to 'write her first novel'. She likes the firmness of the keys, the instaneity and tangibility of the result, and there is no flashing cursor, goading her to tap away.

    Believe it or not, most of all, she prefers to write on paper, in pencil or fountain pen. It's simple, she understands the process.

    Lots of cute comments here about derivations of words. (Eg 'type'; though we still tap out letters on the QWERTY keyboard. Forget the old complaints about QWERTY's inefficiency: its 21st century problem is the proximity of three vowels, I/O/U, on little touch screens).

    'Font' is ubiquitous in the electronic age – indeed given an almost unlimited new life by computing – though there's not a foundry in sight.

  34. jaap said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 8:27 am

    With some label sheets it did use to matter which end you put into a typewriter first. The labels would more easily peel off in one direction than the other. The tight turn around the roller in a typewriter would cause one side of the labels to start to peel, and if you put it in wrong end first the labels would get caught and get damaged. Putting it in the correct way they would peel too, but get flattened again as the backing paper straightened out.

  35. Philip Newton said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 9:24 am

    Why are the "pick at most one" widgets on forms called "radio buttons"?

    I vaguely remember having a car radio with real "radio buttons" for the four (or so) favourite stations, but I wonder whether today's youth will ever have seen one.

  36. Richard Howland-Bolton said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:35 am

    Interestingly, one of those NPR news programmes (Morning Edition??) has a letters section of a Saturday that is always introduced with typewriter noises, including an emphatic 'Ziiiiiippp!" of paper being pulled out. I've often wondered what the younger listener (if they have any) makes of that.

  37. Rick S said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 11:37 am

    @Peter Harvey: cc in emails stands for carbon copy.

    It's now been reanalyzed as "courtesy copy". Probably just to avoid having to explain what it meant and spotlight how old we are.

  38. Amy F. said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 12:50 pm

    Three of the last five undergraduate student workers in our office have asked me "How do I put the paper in it?" when I've asked them to use the typewriter to complete a form.

    For file folder labels, I now use a Dymo LabelWriter 400 Turbo. But I still have a working, rotary telephone at home in my living room.

  39. Rick Robinson said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 1:12 pm

    I am much, much older than 14, and I haven't a clue why the escape and control keys have those names. I can imagine plausible reasons, but don't actually know. As a kindred example, there is an ASCII code for 'bell.' I'd guess that some of the keyboard keys we think of as computer-specific go back to pre-computer teletype machines, something hardly anyone has seen except in movies.

    Speaking of movies, don't they help preserve familiarity with archaic techs such as rotary phones, typewriters, and for that matter steam trains?

  40. Boris said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    What's so outdated about escape (in its current usage)? It's used to dismiss a screen without making changes. Sounds pretty intuitive to me. Return, on the other hand, is deeply entrenched in programming languages (especially on systems where carriage return and line feed are different characters). They even still make sense if you redefine what carriage means (say cursor or caret or whatever they're now called). Even to end users, return makes sense in the context of word processing (though notice that the less intuitive "enter" seems to have replaced it on most keyboards).

    As far as the "turn to [channel number]" in advertisements, I never thought of them as meaning physically turning the channel dial (which I grew up doing), but as a much more general "if you need someone to turn to" type thing. You can use it in completely non-tv related things such as "Turn to Best Buy for all your computer needs" (this is not an endorsement; I do all my computer shopping online) or something.

  41. Boris said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 3:01 pm

    Oh and I only recently finally found out what the phrase "film at 11" refers to. When did this term for "footage" go out of date? Also, when was the last time this phrase was actually used on air to advertise a news report?

  42. Azimuth said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 3:40 pm

    "Don't forget – the longest English word which can be typed using only one row of the typewriter keyboard is typewriter."

    That's a common typewritery misconception.

  43. Philip said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    Every semester, we have an interesting class discussion about the lexical gap in a sentence like "Your papers must be typed." Of course, no one uses a typewriter, so what's the alternative? "Your papers must be word-processed"? Ugh. "Your papers must be printed"? That's ambiguous. "Laser printed"? My printer is an ink jet printer, so is "ink-jetted" more accurate?

    As far as telephones go, all of us still use the term "dial tone."

  44. Lisa said,

    February 8, 2010 @ 10:24 pm

    I use a typewriter (IBM Wheelwriter) weekly, if not quite daily, in my work. I catalog library books and it's great for typing the one missing label if I mess up a laser printer job somehow (rather than running a sheet through the printer for one label, which leaves a grey haze over the sheet), typing fiddly unique labels on scraps of label stock, and using up the sprocket-holed, continuous-feed label stock we still have some of from the days of our Epson dot-matrixes, but which can't be fed through a laser printer. We also use typewriters for typing names on gift bookplates.

    "Insert other end": besides the issue of the labels possibly peeling off in one direction easier than the other, I would suggest that this is printed on all of their label sheet edges, like stationery, so they only have to have one kind of stock. So for some label shapes it winds up being a meaningless instruction, but you don't have to be swapping it in when it's time to run off reams of some asymmetrically cut label.

  45. et said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 1:50 am

    Instead of "Your papers must be typed" why not say "no handwritten papers accepted"?

  46. Marion Crane said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 6:33 am

    Even to end users, return makes sense in the context of word processing (though notice that the less intuitive "enter" seems to have replaced it on most keyboards).

    I remember 'return' on the Enter key, though I'm not sure when the change occurred. However, my current keyboard says Enter but still has the little arrow icon next to it, indicating a return to the left side of the sheet on a new line, which I assume goes back to the way a typewriter works. Then again it seems to me that icons are less susceptible to change than names, as the 'save' button testifies. Or the 'e-mail this file to someone' button, which is a snail mail envelope.

  47. Zubon said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    "no handwritten papers accepted"
    Which leads me back to schoolteachers who were adamant that "handwriting" applied to cursive writing, rather than printed (by hand). So you cannot print it either. "Then how do we get it off the computer?" Third base.

  48. Jen said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

    Yes, we still use the term "dial", but the term originates from the rotation involved in dialing. And it makes sense to refer to a phone with an actual dial as a dial phone, even if they are also called rotary phones.

    But when you enter a number on the phone to call, you "dial" that number, regardless if you use a rotary or touch-tone phone.

    I did not know that a "dial" referred to that circular thing on rotary phones. I thought that term meant to input numbers on a phone. I am 40….we only had rotary phones for a short time while growing up, before switching to touch-tone. Hence, I am not too familiar with them. although I do know "Dial" is the name of a soap too.

  49. Jen said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 6:08 pm

    Also, I think "turn the channel" is common. I did a google search and there are millions of entires. Even though our TV had rotary knobs to change the channel while growing up in the 70's and 80's, we had a remote control which we used almost exclusively, but my grandparents still used the term "turn the channel" [I was raised by my grandparents].

    I also think "turn the channel" sounds much better than "turn the dial" because you are changing the channel, not the rotary knob! The latter is weird.

  50. Dan T. said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 6:58 pm

    Is the TV contest show "Dialing for Dollars" still around?

    From time to time, DC Comics revives its '60s-era feature "Dial H For Hero", where the finder of a mysterious rotary dial can use it to transform into a superhero (or, in some cases, a villain). I don't know if younger comic fans even understand the point of this any more.

  51. MH said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

    How about "Now a major motion picture"? Does anyone still think of movies as moving pictures?

  52. DaveK said,

    February 9, 2010 @ 11:13 pm

    I took a course in printing in back in 7th grade–setting type by hand with a compositor's stick –and it was drilled into us that printing was done with type, and if you were talking about the alternative to cursive, the term was lettering.
    I'm also the only person I know who says "typeface" instead of "font".

  53. Robert said,

    February 12, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    @ DaveK

    Some people make a distinction between typefaces and fonts, where it is possible for different typefaces (e.g. italic version and roman version) to be the same font.


    Presumably they want to rule out the kind of person who would write an entire paper with their feet.


    I am a reasonably young person (I was born in 1986) and I have used a typewriter (although an electric one). However I wouldn't be surprised if many young people haven't done so.
    What shows that some older people are really out of touch is that they think young people don't know what vinyl records are.

  54. Marit said,

    February 17, 2010 @ 6:22 pm

    I was required to use floppy discs for an university course last year.

    And this week I have seen blog posts consisting of a photo of a text written by a typewriter,

  55. Jonquil said,

    March 10, 2010 @ 9:22 pm

    > As a kindred example, there is an ASCII code for 'bell.' I'd guess that some of the keyboard keys we think of as computer-specific go back to pre-computer teletype machines, something hardly anyone has seen except in movies.

    Ahem. I learned to program in the 1970s, and some of the terminals we used were indeed teletypes (TTYs), complete with paper tape punches. The two technologies coexisted for quite some time.

RSS feed for comments on this post