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  • Lawrence Bailey

When going digital means watching your language

I’d no sooner settled into my seat at the thinly attended weekly briefing when a random conversation between two interns gradually reached me from the other end of the table. The semi-conscious part of my brain registered that a fundamental mystery in need of unravelling on their part was the origin of the ‘e’ in ‘email’. No, I’m not making this up.

I resisted any comment. Besides, my immediate priority was getting my tablet screen to rotate correctly. After that would be an attempt to coax a cappuccino out the new machine without incurring a steam burn.

Unfortunately my route towards the brooding black & chrome coffee monster took me past the interns.

Both turned to me, clearly in expectation of insight. I paused with a half-smile on my chops, momentarily unsure if this was a gag. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“The ‘e’ stands for electronic” I eventually proffered; turning back towards the coffee but foolishly adding over my shoulder, “Well, it used to anyway”.

“So what does it stand for now?” was the quickfire response from one of the interns who had patently retained her keen lecture-hall instincts.

Walking and talking became a multi-task too far for me. I stood, hands on the back of a chair, to explain that the prefix still stood for “electronic” but nobody used the term any longer – just like no-one referred to “information superhighway” or “paperless office”. I should have stopped there but caffeine-deprivation has always been the enemy of brevity in my case. Language evolves along with technological application, I expounded. For instance, there used to be a hyphen in ‘e-mail’, but it was dropped as the noun was gradually adopted as a verb.

Now we email each other in the same way that we Tweet, Facebook and Google. The terms are as eponymous for the current generation as Hoover, Kleenex and Band Aid have been to previous ones.

Likewise, we see ‘electronic’ morphing into ‘digital’ to describe the smart-stuff – although I doubt few of us could actually explain the distinction.

Every so often we are read words and phrases such as ‘integrated’ and ‘connectivity’ and ‘the internet of things’ and which convey the impression that it’s entirely about the science.

Yet ask yourselves, I posed, why it is that while our mobile phones display the time digitally, resilient fashion rules still have our wristwatches stuck in analogue format?

It was just at this point that the inevitable happened. The light dimmed behind their eyes and they were listening out of politeness rather than interest.

I did what I usually do in such instances. I stopped, smiled and made the pretence of discovering a new text message on my phone.

Thus a proper sense of inter-generational balance was restored to the room – prompting one intern to kindly offer to get me a coffee from the new machine.

Thanking them, I reflected that it is from such mutual outcomes that our uneasy yet relentless relationship with technology evolves.

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