Floyd Davidson wrote:
The origin may be murky, but the reason it caught on and
stuck is perhaps not.
It is a handy term and people see others using it,
that is enough. At least it is enough to make it
useful as a handy term.
I've been using the word "slang" for this kind
of term. I think it applies, but since it isn't
communicating quite what I want I'll have to go
with a longer explanation.
Amateur radio operators often use "c.w." as a kind
of informal short form for radiotelegraphy. It isn't
what it actually means. It actually means continuous
wave transmission as opposed to damped wave, or spark
transmission. Since damped vave transmission has
been illegal for nearly 80 years, all radio transmissions
of voice, data, television and everything else are c.w.
and the correct use of the term mainly appears in
historical discussions. If you use c.w. as a synonym
for radiotelegraphy, hardly anyone is going to object,
but if you try posting on a amateur radio newsgroup
that c.w actually means that, you are going to be corrected.
(And yes, it does happen.)
The question, "when does improper terminology become
correct?" is very interesting. While I might personally
wish it never did, there is a perfect example of such
a thing happening in photography. Photographic emulsions
are not actually emulsions as chemists use the term,
and yet it is the standard term in photography. I imagine
that this must have annoyed more than a few chemists
who went into photographic chemistry. But no one has
managed to create a new word which conveys the same
idea to photographers, and so it gets used in scientific
papers where both the author(s) and the intended audience
know that it doesn't conform to proper scientific
So it can happen that a mistake becomes correct, but
I'd personally like to set the bar pretty high
for accepting this. If a term starts to be used regularly
in a certain way in scientific papers or advanced
technical discussions, then I think I have to agree
that it has become correct.
Other possible hypotheses a
1) Afocal zoom attachments used to be available which would
convert a fixed focal length lens into a zoom. In that case
the base lens would have been a "prime lens" in the more
orthodox terminology and the name could then have stuck.
2) Fixed focal length lenses could have been primary at
one point simply because the studio or production company
owned a lot more of them and thus could be the default
when a zoom lens was not specifically needed.
I can't imagine that either of those was a great influence,
though both may have had some insignificant but measurable
The afocal zoom attachment hypothesis seems to have got
some support from BC, so I'm now inclined to take it fairly
seriously as a possible origin of "prime lens" = "fixed focal
I think the point, though, is that the meaning of the word
as it existed at the time made people feel comfortable with
the extension of it into new ground.
Quite probably, but if the term grew out of the prime lens
vs. supplementary lens use then very few people who use
the term have any idea of its origins.
Why though? That *is* the common thread that runs through
various meanings of prime. I have never claimed, and see no
point it any attempt to prove, that there are *any* meanings for
"prime" which are not related to "first".
I said the connection was obscure, not that there wasn't one.
Ask someone in any other technical field, or even in optics
whether the technical vocabulary of their field should
shift in such a fashion.
Look, I'm a techie geek type of guy, who is retired after
working for 4 decades in the communications industry. *You* are
going to tell *me* about shifting technical vocabulary???? If
you can, then we could compare notes... but if you want to "ask
someone in any other technical field", rest assured you did.
OK, I had the impression that you got new vocabulary all the
time, but that the older terms had to have pretty much fixed
meanings to avoid serious confusion. I'm aware of what
happened in philosophy with "subjective" and "objective."
You have to pay attention to this to avoid the mistake
of thinking that an older writer is saying nearly the
opposite of what he intended. This sort of thing where
words very nearly switch places can happen, but it is
I can remember working with a fellow in the mid-1960s who had a
really good story about that... He was a retired Navy Chief,
who'd been in Fire Control before WWII, and retired in the mid
1950's. You wanna talk about shifting technical vocabulary!
*Everything* to do with Fire Control changed. When he signed
on, it was all mechanical. When he retired, is was all
His best joke was about trying to order a "soldering iron" to
work on electronics in about 1946, and being unable to get
supply people to realize that he did *not* want a plumber's
But that's really about expectations within an industry:
soldering irons for electronics were very much around,
but fire control people were not expected to be using them.
If you order Glycin from a general chemical supplier,
you will get the kind which isn't a photographic
developer; there are only a few sources for the stuff
you want for your darkroom and you have to go to them
if you want the right stuff. This comes up on a
semi-regular basis on rec.photo.darkroom.
Of course in the 1960's when I worked with that fellow we were
using vacuum tubes in computers, radios, and particle
Virtually the entire vocabulary used today in almost any
industry using electronics *didn't exist* in 1965, and was
created between then and 1985. And now has been in place for 20
years, and people think of it as *old* and carved in stone! But
pull out a resistor that has colored *dots* to identify it, and
is 3/4 of an inch long with wire leads that wrap around each
end, and ask someone if they could solder it into a circuit...
and you'll 1) have a hard time finding anyone with solder and an
iron, and even if they do, they will 2) ask you what in
tarnation that thing is, because 3) they've never seen nor heard
of such a resistor.
Are these the old carbon composition types from before they
used stripes? I seem to recall that the colour code was
the same even though the markings were different. I bet
if they saw them in a radio they would figure out what
they were pretty quickly. I know I did. I can see they
would be a real puzzle out of context, but I don't
think that you would often see them out of context:
they would be in an old piece of electronic equipment.
Heck, in the 1970's most electronics
technicians couldn't identify many parts from WWII equipment
because the technology had changed so fast. Today of course they
can't identify *most* parts from back then.
I wasted too many hours reading the radiation labs series
to be puzzled by much from WWII. I suspect I'm unusual
but not unique in that.
Photography and optics has changed relatively slowly by
Lenses can be much more complex and colour film is
much improved from fifty years ago, but they still
work the same way. Many photographers use fifty
year old cameras on occasion, and it won't generally
be obvious in the results. The better equipment
from back then can still be above average by today's
My 1958 edition of the Ilford Manual of Photography
is actually a better book for the areas it covers
than the 2000 edition. The 2000 edition does cover
some things which didn't exist in 1958, but at least
half of the book is a rewritten version of the
1958 edition. The rewriting seems to be for the sake
of rewriting; you can make paragraph by paragraph
comparisons of surprising amounts of it and the
new version of a paragraph is rarely an improvement.
Perhaps that's why you are uncomfortable with the
evolution of words, and to me that is just one more
fascinating aspect of communications.
Elsewhere in this thread, I mentioned my delight
as a child at reading "incredible" used in a literal
way in The Time Machine. I think a certain amount
of conservatism is part of my personality.
That statement doesn't make sense. Just try coming up with
a clear division of what is "common slang" and what is not.
Ask 20 people... you'll get 25 different answers?
Maybe my use of the word "slang" is a problem. It seems
to have a lot of meanings. I think that most people
are aware that some terms which are frequently used
aren't strictly correct terminology. I began this
discussion by noting that audio engineers often call
cellulose nitrate lacquer disc records "acetates"
even though they are not made from acetate. It is
an informal term which appears to be the result
of an error but is nonetheless frequently used to
communicate. No one would think of calling them
"acetates" in any kind of technical paper.
It makes a lot of sense to deprecate
the use of a new meaning for a technical term if it is seen as
beginning to erode the usefulness of the established
technical use of the term.
You are welcome to try, but tilting at windmills, barking at the
moon, and a number of other similar activities would be more
We only get to find that out later. Sometimes the effort pays off.
As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, there have been
cases in the history of photography where a once popular
misuse of a technical term has been corrected. The
example I gave was the common early 20th century tendency
to use "depth of focus" when what was really meant was
"depth of field."
One example makes it a pattern of significance??? :-)
Even half a dozen examples, which probably could be scraped up,
won't indicate any significance.
As you suppose, there are other examples. The word "focus"
used to be frequently used when "focal length" was meant.
This is preserved in "long-focus lens" which is now quite
respectable, but for the most part this usage has vanished.
Sure. But like I said... try to draw a line between when it is
and when it isn't, and you *can't*.
One line is "would you expect to see the word used this way
in a serious technical paper?" There may be problems with
this, but it seems a reasonable dividing line between
standard terminology and informal terminology.
By newspapers, by the general public, but not by the people
who stay up to early morning doing interesting things on
computers for recreation. A hacker knows what the word means
and knows that it's the newspapers and general public who
have it wrong.
It is ubiquitous. And yes the old definition is still in use
too! Context is everything...
The first time I was aware of the word "hacker" was from
a Psychology Today article that was in our school computer
room around 1980. I think they got it pretty much right.
The word "hacker" is interesting because it is informal
terminology in both senses. The vast majority of people
who think it applies to them use it in the old sense,
while the majority of people who are not now and have
never been hackers are primarily aware of it in the
sense of "cracker." I'm not one now, but I might just
have qualified or had aspirations in that direction when
I was in high school. I haven't written a shell script
for my Mac since I got it. I'm pretty sure I could, but
I haven't. I think you could argue that "hacker" really
does have both meanings, but one should be aware that
a guy who does computer programing for fun probably has
pretty strong views on the matter.
OTOH when clear techical language and popular use
conflict, I think it is reasonable to give preference
to the technical use. For instance, people who are
neither coin collectors nor involved in the making
of coins often call the grained or reeded edges of
coins "milled edges." This is even in some dictionaries.
Coin people nearly always deprecate this use because
it comes from a misunderstanding of the term
"milled coinage" which has nothing to do with the
edges of coins, but from the fact that they are
made on a screw press or other machine.
I don't think "slang" is even close to what it is. The fact that
you don't even know what it means, simply because it is a technical
term from a field outside your range of experience, pretty much
demonstrates that it isn't "slang".
I've probably been guilty of trying to pay "slang" extra
to mean what I want it to mean. Chambers's includes "the
jargon of any class, profession or set" as well as "colloquial
language with words and usages not accepted for dignified
use." My use included elements of each, but perhaps this
wasn't quite right.
It is a very specific technical term, which originally had one
specific meaning, but which now commonly is used (and some would
of course say "incorrectly") to mean something slightly
Both uses are ubiquitous in the telecommunications industry. The
only significance is that it's one of those "trick questions" by
which you can determine if someone is *really* well versed. If
they don't realize there are *two* meanings... they be newbies!
If so, this would seem to be a good example of the difference
between correct terminolgy and slang use.
Virtually *everybody* in the industry uses the term in both the
original, pedantic way, and as a synonym for a DS1. It isn't
Obviously my use of "slang" has failed to communicate the right
idea, I've tried to use other expressions this time round.
(An interesting side note on just how significant "convention"
is to me in communications... I just ran a spell check on this
article and found that I had incorrectly spelled
"communications" virtually every time I used the word. To me, a
word is just a symbol for a meaning, and symbols are a dime a
dozen and can change every day.)
I sometimes misspell words I use regularly too. I haven't run
a spell check on this, so if I did it this time it will show.