Ask Language Log: Obsolete expressions

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From a reader:

I just noticed this headline in our local news (which I read on line…):

"Seahawks QB Russell Wilson pens letter on behalf of Sonics arena project."

Does anyone pen a letter these days, or dial a phone number?  I am sure this raises issues that have come up in your blog. Maybe though there is still room to explore how obsolete expressions continue to be used.

The pattern is certainly a common one. An expression for a concrete object is used to refer to an activity in which that object is central (metonymy); the usage may be extended to similar activities where the original object is not involved (metaphor); and the extended usage continues long after the use of the original object passes out of everyday life.

Thus pen for "write", dial for "enter a sequence of phone numbers", bridle for "restrain", spur for "encourage", sail for "begin a journey by water", shift gears for "change one's way of proceeding", telegraph for "give a premature indication", etc.

The same thing can happen for nominal extensions: reins for "controls", brass for "officers".

Semantic and morpho-syntactic drift of this kind is everywhere — consider the processes that have turned PIE bhel- "to blow, swell" by various routes into into English bale, ball, balloon, ballot, bawd, bold, boulder, boulevard, bowl, bulk, bull,  fool, and phallus. Sometimes a metonymic source becomes technologically or culturally obsolete, but the word continues to be used — so a ballot was originally "a small colored ball placed in a container to register a secret vote".

From the historical point of view, most words are "obsolete expressions", in the sense that their history involves long-forgotten episodes of metonymy and metaphor.



  1. Finn said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 7:48 am


  2. Frans said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 8:47 am

    Isn't write for compose just as much an example? It originally refers to the physical act of drawing characters; it's just that besides a pen you could also do it with, e.g., a pencil or a piece of chalk or carve out the characters with something sharp.

    Btw, I pen plenty of stuff. Any half decent fountain pen is one of the best portable alternatives to a proper mechanical keyboard. I think using a pressure sensitive pen on an electronic drawing tablet of some sort also counts as penning. Because "typing" on a screen is rather awful that's growing ever more popular, especially combined with improved handwriting recognition.

  3. Jonathan said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 9:13 am

    Going full circle- the recent presidential election in Gambia used 'ballots' in the old fashioned sense, marbles in one of three drums for the threes candidates. There's a description here which suggests that the word 'ballot' has become entirely divorced from its original meaning, but I note recent Gambian accounts describe the ballots used as, indeed, ballots.

  4. Ray said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 9:25 am

    I did not know that about "ballot" — but it brings to mind "ostracize" (from ostrakon, a potsherd on which names were scratched to vote them out) and "blackball" (from the black balls put in ballot boxes to register negative votes).

  5. Tim Taylor said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 10:04 am

    I would have thought that the use of 'pen' here is due to journalese. It's a shorter replacement for 'write'.

  6. George Lane said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 11:05 am

    Here's one: "caught on tape," to refer to video of some activity (often illicit) being captured, even though the video is almost always a string of 0s and 1s on a disk drive rather than a physical casette of video tape.

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 11:34 am

    "Dial a phone" has come a long way from Latin dialis, meaning "daily".

    Tim Taylor: I agree that the verb "pen" is journalese (and I don't like it), but I think it's still an example of a metonymy that refers to outdated technology. (Probably outdated in this case, anyway. I'm sure some people still write letters with pens—though very few with pens in the etymological sense of feathers.)

  8. Mara K said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 12:15 pm

    From the historical point of view, most words are "obsolete expressions", in the sense that their history involves long-forgotten episodes of metonymy and metaphor.

    Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!

  9. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 12:39 pm

    George Lane: At the moment of capture, the "disk drive" is almost always a solid state memory device with no moving parts.

  10. David L said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 1:21 pm

    a solid state memory device with no moving parts

    That's an interesting expression in itself. Something has to move inside a solid-state memory in order for bits to be registered, but in this case they are electrons'n'stuff. So even though they are parts and they move, they don't qualify as moving parts.

  11. poftim said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 1:34 pm

    Does "log" count?

  12. Brandon Seah said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 1:45 pm

    Many visual metaphors that are used in computer graphics are also relics of earlier technologies: the little envelope icon for email, the floppy disk to represent "save", the very idea of a "desktop"…

  13. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 1:52 pm

    David L: Electrons do move in flash memory, but don't count as "moving parts" in the engineering sense because they don't wear out.

    But it's not true that registering bits necessarily entails motion. In magnetic media, the electrons stay put, but their spin vectors get flipped.

  14. Xmun said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

    I have a list of obsolete references in common expressions. Here are the first ten (in the order I happened to write them down):
    changing horses in midstream
    in the limelight
    beyond the pale
    cloak room
    slide show
    chalk it up
    glove box
    big wig

  15. Stephen Hart said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 3:17 pm

    Tim Taylor said,
    "I would have thought that the use of 'pen' here is due to journalese. It's a shorter replacement for 'write'."

    Exactly. Another favorite headline word rarely seen elsewhere (or heard) is "temblor."

    Both probably originally were favored because of the lower character count, but I think now they're used even when they're not necessary to fit the headline.

  16. poftim said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 3:24 pm

    Xmun: Nice! And your username is Maltese, right? I know that initial "shm" consonant cluster exists in a bunch of other languages like Romanian and obviously German, but there's something quite striking about the spelling "xm".

    As for obsolete car-related expressions like "glove box", does anyone know the origin of "parcel shelf"? It's been bugging me for a while. Putting parcels there makes no sense at all! The eggcorn "partial shelf" actually makes more sense.

  17. Lugubert said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 3:30 pm

    I maintain a list of Swedish words that have changed their meaning during my lifetime. Most of them won't survive translation without pages of comments, but one example – that I haven't even entered – is what's happened to the ur-old disk. One route is what makes disk mean a circular computer memory thing. But then there's –> circular flat thing to use for heaping your food on (dish; no direct parallel in Swedish) –> same item in used condition that needs cleaning, as in wash the dishes "diska".

    Being fond of wind instruments, I'll try this one. "Mätningarna görs med samma typ av blåsinstrument som Polisen använder …" "The measurements are made using the same kind of [literally] blowing instrument that the police uses." But, you've guessed it, "blåsinstrument" = wind instrument…

  18. Xmun said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 4:11 pm

    @poftim: Yes indeed. My username is Maltese, as was my paternal ancestry, though my mother was English and I was born and brought up in the UK. The "sh" sound for x is found in such names as Ximenez and Xerez, which in modern Spanish are of course spelt Jimenez and Jerez, just as Quixote (pronounced like French Quichotte) is now spelt Quijote. My real name is Simon, and Xmun is pronounced much like Hebrew Shimon, with the first vowel lost and the second altered.

  19. olguin said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 4:28 pm

    @Xmun interesting list although obsolete and common depend on your common circle. big wig and chalk it up are alive and well in many circles. not sure in the limelight is dead either but.

  20. peterv said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 4:30 pm

    And despite at least five centuries of knowledge to the contrary, most of us still speak of "sunrise" and "sunset".

  21. poftim said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 4:43 pm

    @Stephen Hart,
    Temblor is an interesting one. I don't think I've ever seen it outside newspaper headlines or heard it anywhere either. But "tremor", "quake" and "shake" are all shorter. Maybe "temblor" just gives headline writers an extra option.

  22. Xmun said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 5:04 pm

    @olguin. Indeed the expressions are alive and well, but my point was that the things they refer to are no longer current, except in a few special cases. British judges still wear big wigs in court, but "big wig" means any important person, not just a judge. Likewise "limelight" refers to a technology that is not longer used, although of course bright spotlights are still used in the theatre and indeed elsewhere.

  23. Rubrick said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 5:08 pm

    My favorite recent example is "reboot the Spider-man franchise", in which "reboot" has taken a remarkable journey from "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" to "start a computer system by leveraging a small subset of its instructions" to "restart a computer" to "restart a franchise", all within the past 60-odd years. ("Franchise" itself is another interesting one.)

  24. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

    peterv: But we now have a century of knowledge (since Einstein) that all motion is relative. In the Earth's rotating frame, the sun does indeed rise and set.

    Xmun: Slides are no longer made of photographic film, but they can still be made to slide onto and off of the screen if you so desire.

  25. pat barrett said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 7:38 pm

    Come in over the transom.

  26. Martinned said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 7:43 pm

    Wait, what's so obsolete about shifting gears? I do that – physically, with gears and sprockets – every time I drive. (Or ride a bike, even.)

  27. Joseph C. Fineman said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 8:33 pm

    The frequent use of "footage" for videos is a blatant example. How many feet are there in a gigabyte?

  28. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 9:33 pm

    Joseph C. Fineman: Enough to have room for the soundtrack.

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 9:35 pm

    …which may get released as an album.

  30. Geoff said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 10:08 pm

    In iconography –
    – steam locomotives on signs near level crossings
    – pictures of 30-year-old cameras and 80-year-old film cameras to show the photo/film functions on your mobile phone
    – picture of a floppy disk to show the 'save' function on your computer
    – in playing charades, the gesture that indicates that the title to be guessed is a film: winding the handle of an imaginary film camera.

  31. Ray said,

    December 10, 2016 @ 11:24 pm

    what about "sabotage"? (something old, something new, something borrowed…)

  32. Dennis said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 12:06 am

    I still like the scratching phonograph as a sign of a rude interruption in a movie. Though, with the resurgence of vinyl among the young, it may not be so obsolete any more.

  33. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 12:12 am

    Change in technology is a typical context for semantic change, but the cognitive mechanisms of metaphor and metonymy, as Mark notes, are the main ways semantic changes are implemented.

  34. Jon said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 4:06 am

    poftim:My favourite car-related one is dashboard. Horse-drawn carriages had a problem with stones being thrown up at the driver by the horses' hooves, so they put up a board for the stones to dash against. The first horseless carriages still had the dashboard, and it made a convenient place to mount instruments.

  35. Jeff Worthington said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 5:07 am

    "Roll down a [car] window". People will even pantomime this with a circular fist motion while saying it.

  36. Richard Hershberger said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 8:47 am

    The classic example in baseball is that when a pitcher performs poorly and is removed from the game prematurely he is said to have been "knocked out of the box." There hasn't been a pitcher's box since 1893.

  37. Rob said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 11:22 am

    poftim: an alternative for "glovebox" that was used, at least in my family, was "cubby hole". I have occasionally wondered about its origin.
    Wikipedia informs me that it relates to a small, snug place, and is 'Possibly from the term "cub" in old English related to "stall, pen, cattle shed, coop, hutch"'

  38. Cervantes said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 12:22 pm

    Gregory Kusnick

    a solid state memory device with no moving parts

    And yet, it, too, wears out.

  39. poftim said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 1:14 pm

    Jon: Thanks for that fascinating info on the origin of "dashboard". Of course now the term has extended beyond the realm of vehicles altogether. I'd hazard a guess that "parcel shelf" comes from the horse-drawn carriage era too.

    Rob: That's interesting. I'm familiar with "cubby hole" as a term for any nook or cranny that is used for storage, which I guess would include a glove box.

  40. Gregory Kusnick said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 1:30 pm

    Jeff Worthington: The circular motion hasn't gone away; it's just motorized now. But I'm guessing "roll down a window" has less to do with that than with "roll down a window shade", which still feeds from a roll mounted at the top of a window.

  41. Bloix said,

    December 11, 2016 @ 4:14 pm

    I would guess that very few people know what an actual limelight is.

    in the business of insurance, adjusters still write up information on "claims cards," which of course are not cards anymore, but screens.

    Doorbells don't have bells in them.

    For many years, people call vinyl flooring linoleum. I think linoleum is pretty much dead now, as is icebox for refrigerator.

  42. Keith said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 4:38 am

    My grandmother used to refer to linoleum as "oil-cloth", a word she also used for the textile used to make the raincoat and sou'wester that I wore as a small boy.

  43. Bloix said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 9:28 am

    Linoleum started out as a trademark for a brand of oil-cloth (linseed oil hardens on exposure to air, so if you impregnate cloth with it you get a tough, solid surface).

  44. Shuree Nuff said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 9:58 am

    Obviously no shortage of examples.

    With technology removing lots of physical objects from circulation, is the sphere of expressions that represent obsolete things occupying a bigger proportion of our speech?

  45. Kenny Easwaran said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 11:52 am

    *Is* there a technically correct verb for the motion of a contemporary oceangoing vessel? The verbs that come to mind are "sail" and "steam", both of which are obsolete. I could also imagine "motor" or "drive", but I think of those as referring to land-based motion.

  46. Yuval said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 4:22 pm

    In Hebrew, the word for 'dial' took on a specific meaning (blogged in Hebrew here: starting a telephone conversation by manually entering the phone number (as opposed to via the contact card, or entering the number for other purposes like sending someone else that number). There's no other way to say just that.

  47. Emily said,

    December 12, 2016 @ 10:21 pm

    "Clip" as in "video clip" is another in the same semantic field as "caught on tape" and "footage."

    I wonder if "click" (along with its compounds such as "clickbait") is on its way to obsolescence as touchscreen devices supersede computer mice.

  48. Stan said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 4:55 am

    I was made fun of when I said I needed to "turn the channel on TV" and "film a video" and "write an email". Please, leave well enough alone.

  49. DaveK said,

    December 13, 2016 @ 11:41 pm

    No one's mentioned "driving" a car, which was taken over from driving horses

  50. Guy Plunkett III said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:03 pm

    To this day my wife and I “tape” a program to watch later, although the VCR has been replaced by the DVR.

  51. Bloix said,

    December 14, 2016 @ 12:57 pm

    As a cyclist, i've often done long trips with my gear packed in my panniers = a word meaning breadbaskets originally, and then a pair of baskets slung over the back of a donkey.

  52. Alon Lischinsky said,

    December 16, 2016 @ 11:36 am

    @Brandon Seah: that's known as skeuomorphism

  53. How language evolves right under our noses – The Week Magazine | List Author said,

    December 18, 2016 @ 1:53 pm

    […] Penn linguist Mark Liberman notes in a clever little post at Language Log, most words are, in a sense, "obsolete expressions," like pen a letter […]

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