American Online has been heavily promoting its version 7.0 software on television lately. AOL hype is generally irritating, of course, but I have been particularly jarred by the pronunciation of the reputed word “Online.” (The word should probably be “On-line,” but I can spot a trend when I see one.) Since the word in question comes from the two words “on” and “line,” “on-line” (or “online”) is generally pronounced as two syllables with nearly equal emphasis. In various circumstances, I think, one or the other syllable may receive slightly more emphasis. The American Heritage Dictionary shows both syllables accented, the first more heavily, but I am at least slightly skeptical of this analysis. I assert that, in a sentence such as “I’m on-line,” the accent is likely to be on the second syllable. The AOL commercials, however, refer to “America On´line.” But no one speaks of being on´-line unless he is peevishly correcting someone who has insisted that he is off-line.
I had hoped that some historical analysis might help clarify the pronunciation of “on-line,” but the dictionaries that I have available in my library and on the Web have been only so helpful. Most dictionaries suggest that the word is applied primarily to computing devices (or perhaps to computer users), but I suspect the word had a more industrial genesis. One source suggested a 1950 origin, which almost certainly would have been in a non-computer context. Railroads refer to “on-line industries,” which are plants adjacent to a rail line (i.e., railroad track). I suspect that the original line may have been an assembly line, however. A trip to the library seems indicated.