20th century tech phrases that lost all their meaning

Technology is outpacing the language's ability to evolve. Case in point: these analogies that bear only the slightest resemblance to the gizmos that spawned them.

At 42, I’m too old to be “wet behind the ears” and too young to be “older than the hills.” But I managed to live through an extraordinary transition from the 20th century to the 21st. The technology around us has evolved rapidly—but our language hasn’t quite caught up. That means every day, people use phrases based on technology that no longer exists.

To be fair, I didn’t make this observation first. My editor did. Then she asked me to "write" this article, which is a terrific example of this conundrum: I haven’t physically "written" anything in the years since I've owned a computer. And as an editor, she checks my work to make sure I've "dotted every i and crossed every t," but I haven't done that either. She also "proofreads," but she doesn’t read proofs. And then when she’s done, she can “cc” her editors, but she’s not actually sending “carbon copies.” Get it?

So here are some technology-based phrases that are common to the English language. If you were born after 1980, you may find these origins surprising…but if you were born before 1980, you may find yourself just feeling old.

Off the air

When a radio or television station does not transmit a signal, the broadcaster is “off the air.”

What the youngsters think it means

Falling, which is the opposite of “catching air,” an exuberant leap, usually done with a skateboard or snowboard.

What it actually means

For those of us of a certain age from America, being off the air was truly terrible because of this and this (and if you’re from the U.K., because of this).

What are these, the youngsters ask?

If you set the Wayback Machine to the early 1990s (and by that, I’m referring to the original Wayback Machine from "Rocky and Bullwinkle" circa 1959), you’d see that most television and radio channels signed off at the end of the programming day and didn’t sign on again until the morning.

That’s right. No television.

So even if we woke up in the small hours and padded to the television in our footie pajamas, careful not to wake our parents, we still couldn’t watch TV, even if we wanted to.

The 21st century may have heaped upon us startling issues concerning privacy, both digitally and in “meat space.” But at least it has given us 24 hours a day of The Food Network.

Note: For another usage of the phrase, when a television or radio performer is no longer appearing, he or she is “off the air,” in other words, “canned,” “pink-slipped,” or “given the boot.”

A Kodak moment

Kodak defines its self-referential Kodak moment as “a rare, one-time moment that is captured with a photo, or should have been captured with a photo.”

What the youngsters think it means

The moment when a business realizes its entire product line has been superseded and must resort to patent infringement lawsuits as its only hope for survival.

What it actually means

Go through your family’s photo album and you’ll see a wealth of Kodak moments, even if the pictures were taken with a Polaroid. (Actually, you can still catch a Kodak moment, just not with a film camera; Kodak ceased producing film cameras in 2007 in favor of digital cameras.)

A bride and groom’s stolen kiss. A baby playing with a puppy. All that gooey stuff. The Kodak moment isn’t just about the actual photograph. It’s about the emotional response you get when you see the picture.

For me, the thrill of the Kodak moment came when I picked up my photos from the developer or the drugstore. The group shot came out? And no one was blinking or grimacing? That was the real Kodak moment.

Video footage

Video footage = unedited film.

What the youngsters think it means

It’s just a longer way of saying video, used mostly by the people taking the videos. Or, for some people, taking videos of random feet and uploading it to foot fetish sites.

What it actually means

The phrase came about because in the days of silent movies, film was measured by length. (Wikipedia says, “[T]here are 16 frames…in a foot of 35 mm film, which roughly represented 1 second of silent film, [which] made footage a natural unit of measure for film….”)

To correct this word for the digital age, I suggest we all start calling it “megabytage.”

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A broken record

When someone is “like a broken record,” they repeat the same things over and over again. The same things over and over again. The same things over and over again.

What the youngsters think it means

There’s this record, some sort of duplicate copy of something. It’s broken. Hmm. I know! It’s a corrupted file! Either that, or Guinness has to update its book again.

What it actually means

Wikipedia describes a record as “an analog sound storage medium consisting of a flat disc with an inscribed, modulated spiral groove.” This flat, round disc was inscribed with music (to see how, click here).

Records, mostly made of vinyl, were easily damaged, whether they warped from heat or were scratched by the record player’s own damned needle. One particularly annoying problem happened from overplaying. James Thurber, a humorist and New Yorker cartoonist, described it in his autobiography…in 1933.

The record had been played so many times that its grooves were deeply cut and the needle often kept revolving in the same groove, repeating over and over the same words. Thus: ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh, ate some burnt hoss flesh.

In the groove

In the groove meant to enjoy a task; to dance.

What the youngsters think it means

It’s something that Madonna said you should get into in order to prove your love to her. That was back in the 1980s. Today, we just prove our love to her by buying her poorly selling album on iTunes.

What it actually means

Unlike a “broken record,” which is a bad thing, being “in the groove” is a good thing. It means you’ve put the record player’s arm down in the precise part of the record to start your music. According to the World Wide Words site:

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is dated 1937. It comes from jazz, when to be groovey (the original spelling) was a shortened form of “in the groove,” meaning that somebody was playing brilliantly or easily, perhaps like a gramophone needle slipping along a groove, or making music as perfectly as a needle does in the grooves of a record.

Time to get your groove on (which, for the younger readers in the audience, frequently means “dance”).

British comedy troupe Monty Python knew how to get in the groove in a particularly entertaining way: Its album "Matching Tie & Handkerchief" was a three-sided album. One side of the album had two channels, that is, two different tracks, running parallel to each other. And depending on where you placed the needle, you’d hear a different track. Monty Python did not publicize this fact, so you could go months without hearing the alternate track. And when you did, you’d think you were going completely mental.

Mixtape

A mixtape is almost exactly what the young’uns think it is, except instead of an MP3, a mixtape was cassette tape. And the only way to get it was to hold up your cassette recorder to your radio and hope that your mother didn’t call you for dinner at that precise moment. Alternatively, you could copy the song via the more expensive dual-cassette deck, which many of us couldn’t afford until cassette players were nearly obsolete.

What the youngsters think it means

It’s an MP3 of songs, but instead of music from one artist, arranged in the same order as an album, a mixtape is a compilation of the work of different artists.

What it actually means

Here’s the thing about that: Back when mixtapes were actual tapes, it took a lot of effort to assemble them. You needed the right equipment and a plenty of spare time to put it together. Dragging a playlist to a memory stick, or selecting a playlist and clicking “burn to CD,” doesn’t capture the same kind of effort. This is why mixtapes in the last century meant sincere love (or at least, a desire to get some), but in this century means, “Oops, I forgot to buy you something for your birthday.”

I actually had my first oldster moment over a mixtape. I met a young woman who offered to make me one in 2002. I said, “Wow, I guess I have to dig up my cassette player.” Haughtily, she explained she was obviously going to burn me a CD.

And I’ve just now realized that I’m well within my rights to call her and shout, “Look who’s obsolete now, b-tch!”

Dial a number

To call on the telephone.

What the youngsters think it means

It means you call someone.

What it actually means

Same thing but worse.

I could explain how you would have to insert your finger into a disc and drag it clockwise, but I’d rather you watch this mind-melting demonstration. I’ll wait.

Before the dial tones we know today, phones used pulse dialing, literally disconnecting and reconnecting the telephone line to send a series of pulses to the exchange (i.e., 1=1 pulse, 9=9 pulses, 0=10 pulses). Dialing a number took seemingly forever, and you couldn’t speed up the process by forcing the dial backward (the gods know I tried).

However, this means that if you were sufficiently dexterous, you could dial by rapidly toggling the phone’s hook the requisite number of pulses, with pauses between numbers. You could even make calls on phones whose dials had broken.

Also, there was one very real advantage to a rotary phone: When presented with an unfamiliar area code, you could tell by looking at it just how important the location was that you were calling. New York City and Los Angeles were 212 and 213, respectively. A number that takes relatively longer to dial, like 709? You get Newfoundland and Labrador.

(Note: The seriously oldie-timey phones didn’t have dials. You picked up the receiver and the “switchboard operator,” almost exclusively women, would dial the number for you. Sweet!)

Hang up the phone

Disconnect a telephone call.

What the youngsters think it means

Mount your phone on a wall, like an art installation.

What it actually means

When you were finished with your conversation, you would place the receiver on the cradle, which, in some of the oldest versions, literally hung from a hook. Now, when we finish our calls, we just ‘End Call’ with a press of a button.

Shouting at your lover in an angry conversation, “I’m hanging up on you!” may have impact, but it doesn't have the veracity as yelling, “I’m removing my gloves and blowing on my fingers in order to get my iPhone’s capacitive sensors to recognize my pressing the ‘End Call’ button on you!”

It’s impossible to tell which technology will be adding colorful phrases to our language next, because some items are long-lived and sometimes they’re just “a flash in the pan.” I’d insert a witty and timeless analogy here to end this article, but alas, I’ve “run out of steam.”