To celebrate April Fool’s Day, I tried to have fun in this newsletter, especially in the choice of letters from the readers and the quote of the day. It’s all true, though – no deception.
I am fascinated by what the evolution of language has taught us about economic development over the years. By focusing on the language, I pay homage to my incisive colleague from Opinion John McWhorter as well as the big Guillaume Safire, who for years wrote the “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine. The difference is that I will try to stay connected to my main subject, the economy.
Consider this currency: meat space. It simply refers to the physical world, where we have tangible bodies made of…meat. “Meatspace” is a word that didn’t need to exist before the invention of cyberspace. Technological progress gives us a new perspective on things we once took for granted, in this case reality itself.
“ICE vehicle” (pronounced “ice”) is similar. ICE is short for internal combustion engine, a modifier that was superfluous until the arrival of electric cars. Like the meat space, it’s what journalist Frank Mankiewicz called a “retronym” – a new term coined for something old because the original term became ambiguous, usually from such development than a technological advance.
There are many lists of retronyms on the Internet. Among my favorites, each revealing in one way or another the progress of society: incandescent bulb (required by fluorescent, LED, etc.); phone; analog watch; Euclidean geometry; Copy; vacuum tube radio (as opposed to transistor radio – although who still cares to specify “transistor” radio?).
Unlike retronyms, “infrastructure” is an old word that is constantly being asked to do more work. It started as a term of French railway engineering referring to the layers of material that lie below (“infra”) the tracks. Its meaning has expanded to include roads, bridges, sewers and power lines, and very recently expanded again to include people, especially carers, as in this fact sheet from White House Biden last year, who said, “The President’s plan calls for substantial investments in the infrastructure of our care economy, starting with creating new and better jobs for social workers.”
Our language preserves ancient ways of life as surely as amber preserves long-dead insects or volcanic ash preserved ancient Pompeii. We continue to “cc:” people on emails, even though increasingly few of us have ever made carbon copies on a typewriter (I have). We “copy and paste” text, barely aware that it was previously real scented paste. I recently learned that uppercase and lowercase letters get their name from real wooden crates of lead that were used by typesetters for printing. People still talk about “dialing” phone numbers even though phones don’t have dials, and “rolling up” car windows even though cranks are long gone.
In that sense, it’s amazing that, well into the 21st century, we’re still describing how strong our cars and trucks are compared to horsepower. This usage dates back to James Watt, the Scottish inventor who developed a best steam engine in the late 18th century and compared it to a horse, because at that time horses and pulleys were used to lift buckets of water out of flooded coal mines.
Technology has come a long way since the 18th century, but not the English language, at least when it comes to describing engine power. By the way, one horsepower equals 746 watts – and yes, the watt is named after James Watt.
Not all technical terminologies have the capacity to stay in power. In economics, for example, “priming the pump” was a well-understood term for what we now call recovery. A conventional pump will not work if there is air in the pump or in the line leading to it. You have to pour water into it – to “prime” it – before you can drain the water. At a time when people were more familiar with pumps, it made sense to them that sometimes the government needed to pump money into the economy to make it work and pump out a lot more money. This metaphor is less intuitively persuasive these days.
Flat panel high definition color televisions are just today’s televisions. Ballpoint pens are just pens. And before long, self-driving electric cars will be just cars. Time and technology advance.
Reading your March 25 newsletter about free-market economist Clifford Winston, I thought of that old joke: An engineer and an economist are stuck in a deep hole in the ground. After several hours, the engineer said, “I just can’t find a way to get us out of here. The economist turns to him and says, “That’s easy! First, let’s assume a ladder…”
quote of the day
“Asking me now to write what I think of business journals is like asking a lamppost to write a memoir about dogs.”
– Philip Mirowski, “The Effortless Economy of Science?” (2004)
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