Viewpoint | ‘Meatspace’? Technologies Does Humorous Issues to Language

To celebrate April Fools’ Day I’ve attempted to have some enjoyable in this e-newsletter, such as in the option of reader mail and the quotation of the day. Everything’s real, however — no fooling.

I’m fascinated by what the evolution of language tells us about financial enhancement in excess of the a long time. In focusing on language I’m shelling out homage to my incisive View colleague John McWhorter as well as the good William Safire, who for several years wrote the “On Language” column in The New York Situations Magazine. The variation is I’ll consider to remain connected to my key subject, economics.

Take into consideration this coinage: meatspace. It refers simply to the bodily earth, exactly where we have tangible bodies built of … meat. “Meatspace” is a phrase that didn’t want to exist right until the invention of cyberspace. Technological progress provides us a new point of view on issues we when took for granted, in this case actuality itself.

“I.C.E. vehicle” (pronounced “ice”) is equivalent. I.C.E. is short for inner combustion engine, a modifier that was superfluous right until electrical vehicles arrived on the scene. Like meatspace, it’s what the journalist Frank Mankiewicz termed a “retronym” — a new term which is invented for anything old mainly because the initial time period has grow to be ambiguous, commonly due to the fact of some development these types of as a technological advance.

There are tons of lists of retronyms on the net. Amid my favorites, just about every revealing society’s progress in some way or a further: incandescent gentle bulb (necessitated by fluorescent, LED, etcetera.) landline cellphone analog look at Euclidean geometry challenging copy vacuum tube radio (as opposed to transistor radio — although who bothers specifying “transistor” radio any more?).

Unlike retronyms, “infrastructure” is an outdated term that retains getting asked to do a lot more perform. It started as a expression from French railroad engineering referring to the levels of material that go beneath (“infra”) the tracks. Its meaning expanded to contain roads, bridges, sewers and electricity lines, and incredibly a short while ago expanded once again to contain men and women, specially caregivers, as in this point sheet from the Biden White Residence final 12 months, which said, “The president’s strategy tends to make substantial investments in the infrastructure of our care economic system, starting by making new and superior employment for caregiving employees.”

Our language preserves old means of residing as certainly as amber preserves long-lifeless insects or volcanic ash preserved historical Pompeii. We nonetheless “cc:” people today on email messages even even though increasingly few of us have ever produced carbon copies on a typewriter (I have). We “copy and paste” text, scarcely mindful that true aromatic paste utilised to be involved. I not long ago figured out that uppercase and lowercase letters obtained their names from actual wood instances of direct that were being employed by compositors for printing. Men and women nonetheless talk about “dialing” cellular phone figures even even though phones don’t have dials, and “rolling up” car or truck home windows even even though hand cranks are lengthy absent.

Along individuals traces, it’s astounding that very well into the 21st century we’re even now describing the toughness of our cars and trucks and trucks in comparison to the electric power of horses. That use traces again to James Watt, the Scottish inventor who made a improved steam motor in the late 18th century and in comparison it to a horse, due to the fact in those people times horses and pulleys were utilized to carry buckets of h2o out of flooded coal mines.

Engineering has leapt forward due to the fact the 18th century but the English language has not, at minimum when it comes to describing the electricity of engines. A person horsepower, by the way, equals 746 watts — and of course, watt is named immediately after James Watt.

Not all technical terminology has horsepower’s being power. In economics, for example, “priming the pump” utilised to be a very well-comprehended phrase for what today we contact stimulus. A conventional pump won’t get the job done if there is air in the pump or the line to it. You have to pour drinking water into it — to “prime” it — just before you can get h2o out. In an era when folks ended up much more acquainted with pumps, it built sense to them that the government would sometimes require to pour some funds into the economic system to get it functioning and pump much additional revenue out. That metaphor is fewer intuitively persuasive these times.

Flat-monitor, significant-definition colour TVs are just TVs currently. Ballpoint pens are just pens. And in advance of extensive, self-driving electrical vehicles will be just cars and trucks. Time and know-how march on.


In reading through your March 25 publication on the economist Clifford Winston, a believer in totally free markets, I imagined of this previous joke: An engineer and an economist are caught in a deep hole in the ground. Just after many hours the engineer states, “I just cannot figure out a way to get us out of here.” The economist turns to him and states, “It’s easy! Initial, assume a ladder….”

Allan Kemp

Littleton, Colo.


“Asking me now to write on how I come to feel about economics journals is like inquiring a lamppost to publish a memoir on canine.”

— Philip Mirowski, “The Easy Overall economy of Science?” (2004)

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