June 18, 2010

Adjectives Becoming Nouns and Other Linguistic Adventures

I found myself writing about the ubiquitous remote controls for electronic devices that we all seem to have too many of these days. Not once did I write “remote control.” I referred to the devices only as “remotes,” as most people do these days.

When you think about it, “remote” is an odd term for an object, but the word, which has had a long career as an adjective, is now most commonly used as a noun. As I thought about it, I realized that the evolution of “remote control” into “remote” is an example of a common phenomenon, particularly in the naming of pieces of technology. Here are some additional examples that come to mind:

Original Term
Common Abbreviated
Term
transistor radiotransistor
cell phonecell
microwave ovenmicrowave
jet airplane (or jet plane)
jet
laptop computerlaptop
flat-screen televisionflat-screen
ink-jet printerink-jet
diesel-electric locomotivediesel
automatic transmissionautomatic
single-lens reflex camera single-lens reflex (or SLR)

A few comments are in order about this list. I find myself comfortable with most of the abbreviated forms, though I find “transistor” grating for some reason, and I don’t personally use “cell.” (When transistor radios were popular, I was very interested in electronics and probably thought “transistor” more ambiguous than did most people.) Interestingly, “automatic” can refer to a transmission or (sometimes) to the entire vehicle. Oddly, a “laptop” is something you might put atop your lap. (I was going to write “on top of your lap,” which suggests that a lap might have a bottom.)

The sort of abbreviations I’ve been talking about are not inevitable. Seldom does one hear a quartz watch referred to as a “quartz,” since virtually every watch is now a quartz watch. (This is less true in higher income brackets.) Thus, a quartz watch is just a “watch.” What used to be a “watch” is now more likely a “mechanical watch” or “wind-up watch.” Likewise, on most railroads, a diesel-electric locomotive has become simply a “locomotive,” since every locomotive on the property is a diesel-electric locomotive.

Anyway, I’m sure others can add to this list abbreviated form that have or have not become current. That list will only grow over time.

One final note on “remote” as a noun: There seems to be an earlier instance of such usage, but one that developed the same way. A broadcast originating outside a studio is called a “remote.” Originally, it was probably a “remote broadcast.”

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