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all the words are zombie

June 10, 2014

GeekWire: “I see dead words: Terminology that technology has left behind” by Frank Catalano:

There are words that are dead. They just don’t know it yet. The advance of technology has left, in its wake, zombie terminology. It’s the verbal equivalent of junk DNA, inserted as anchorless references in complex strings of day-to-day communication.

zombie frank catalano

The specific words that Catalano refers are interesting because they all have embedded cultural knowledge of old technology in their meaning. In each of these words a newer technology has eliminated the literal meaning and created incorrect metaphors. Because these are all about technological change and vestigial structures and dead language, it’s so zombie.

Catalana refers to email’s “cc” which is about replication, telephones “dial” which was physical code, video “tape” was series of sequential images, the “roll” of a window motor, the next “slide” of a presentation’s series of interchangeable images. These are all metaphors about zombie. He throws in “private” at the end, like a joke, but it’s serious.

The world of instant data has made all words zombie. Everything is replicated, digitally encoded, out of sequence, rolling itself, forever interchangeable – the idea that information can ever be private again. And yet, what remains private is our personal use of language.

We are all lost in our private use of public language. The words are there, their corpses out there all over the mess of data, the physical tangible remnants of once poignant ideas. The words always exist before I use them. Someone else invented them, others mutilated them for their purposes, we find them, use them, bring life to their dead form if only for a moment, borrowed to be misinterpreted.

That’s what so interesting about Catalano’s reference to Junk DNA. It is a strange reference precisely because Junk DNA is not “junk”, it is perhaps meaningful with new technology and what was once was seemingly irreverent to the coded expression may become relevant. But in the zombie terms of Catalano’s article, they are words that were once meaningful but with new technology come to mean something completely irrelevant.

We might be tempted to discard all these vestigial structure, to focus only on the new functions and ignore the old zombie meanings. But there are deep cultural concepts hidden in these terms. We must not lose the idea of carbon copy, dials, tapes, rollers, slides. These are important cultural metaphors even if they are no longer literally meaningful.

See more ZombieLaw Grammar and Language

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