Whenever new technology comes along, new words and phrases follow. Often, the phrases from the old technology remain in language long after we have forgotten the technology. Have you ever said or heard some of these outdated phrases and wonder what they really mean?
Phrases about cars
We measure the power of an engine in horsepower. Your car may have, say, 300 horsepower. Or that you have 300 horses under the hood. One horsepower is 550 foot-pounds per second. One foot-pound is enough energy to move one pound of something one foot in one second.
This phrase is fairly easy to understand. Before the days of cars and trucks, people used horse-drawn carriages and wagons. One horse could easily pull a certain amount of weight. Moving heavier loads required more horses.
Wells Fargo (which started out as a freight company, not a bank) needed more horsepower than the average farmer. But the farmer may have sometimes needed four horsepower instead of just one or two.
Whoever first used “horsepower” to describe the power of a car was only making an analogy between a familiar technology and the new one that would eventually displace it.
Hold your horses
In the days of horse-drawn carriages, telling the driver to hold his horses literally meant to wait, not to go anywhere. Maybe a late-arriving passenger had to get on board. The phrase became a cliché to tell someone to be patient. We still say it to people who have never been within arm’s length of a horse.
Roll up the window
Car windows now open and close with the touch of a button. They used to operate by a crank, which someone would roll one way to raise the window and the other way to lower it. A friend of mine wanted crank windows the last time she bought a new car. Otherwise, I haven’t seen any for years.
I suppose that inside the car door, the mechanism hasn’t changed much. An electric motor drives the same mechanism as my friend’s crank. So we might as well use the same phrase.
Phrases from old kinds of communication
Early candlestick phones had an earpiece that hung from a moving cradle. When they picked it up the cradle would rise and open the connection. At the end of the call, they would hang it up again.
Later phones had the earpiece and mouthpiece in one unit, which would be placed on the receiver when not in use. It didn’t exactly hang any more, but the expression remained. Now, we just push a button or an icon on a screen. To hang up.
Dial a number
The earliest telephone service required ringing up an operator to connect the call. Imagine the convenience of the first automatic switching. Telephones had a dial with ten finger holes. Each number moved the dial a different distance. Each distance sent a different set of clicks to the switch. So a caller would use the dial to enter a sequence of digits, and the call went through without the intervention of an operator.
Then came push-button phones and eventually cell phones. And we all dial them, so we say.
Nothing to write home about
Nowadays, people take pictures of their supper and post it on Facebook. But before any of our electronic communication existed, people communicated differently. It meant getting out ink and a pen, writing on paper, blotting it, and eventually paying to have to post office deliver it.
No one went to that much effort for trivia.
Tape a show
Throughout most of television’s history, you watched a show when it aired or not at all. Videocassette recorders changed all of that. “Tape a show” became a shorthand for “record a show on tape.” We don’t use tape to tape shows any more.
A related phrase seems to come from audiocassettes. People would play the same music over and over until it came to their minds unbidden. Earworms, we call it.
But often people would complain to counselor or friends that old conversations, like arguments with parents, would come back to mind and replay. “I’ve got all these tapes in my head,” we’d say.
Still do, but for how much longer?