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Old October 3rd 05, 05:26 AM
Floyd Davidson
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"Peter" wrote:
Floyd Davidson wrote:
"Peter" wrote:
Floyd Davidson wrote:

It does not necessarily have to be that one grew out of the
other. However, I *don't* see them as totally unrelated.

Ok, I'll bite. What relationship do you see between the term
"prime lens" used to mean the main lens as opposed to a supplementary
lens or attachment, and the term "prime lens" used to mean a
fixed focal length lens?

Clearly that came about because fixed focal lenses are
typically, for any given price better lenses than a similarly
priced zoom lens.

You say "clearly" but the origin of the term really seems to
be pretty murky.

The origin may be murky, but the reason it caught on and stuck is
perhaps not.

The slang use of "prime lens" for "fixed focal length" appears
to have originated in the professional cine industry. And while
the early pro cine zooms were rather flare-prone they didn't
have anywhere near the performance compromises of the amateur
cine and still-camera zooms of the 1960s.

None of which is significant. That does *not* explain why it
became a common usage.

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

Prime of course can mean the one which is the
first in quality, or the first in favor, or the first to be
used, or "primitive" as in the least complex.

The explanation that they are less complex and thus
"prime" seems possible. There appear to be many possible
reasons for the name,

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.

but so far no one appears to have
provided documentation or a really strong argument to
indicate how it started. The name seems to be in use
because people hear or read others using the term and
it catches on, and not because there is any widespread
agreement about exactly why they are "prime."

Exactly. It isn't in common usage because of where it started,
or because it was obvious or strongly supported by some
particular lobby (such as marketing). It's just a case of it
being so close in meaning, so convenient, and sounding good,
that it "rings true" and people remember it and use it
themselves. Bingo, a new usage catches on.

Since the advent of national TV in the late 1950's, this has
been a fairly common occurrence in common language, but in
technical fields it had become common even before then, as we
came into the age of technology.

My field is communications (and keep in mind that photography is
in many ways a communications technology), and I've always been
fascinated by the peripheral effects that basic changes in
communications technology have had on society. In that respect,
I saw TV come to the Seattle area when I was a kid, and then I
saw it again in Alaska when my children were small. And I also
watched, as a young adult, the effect of things like Direct
Distance Dialing; and then again later I was part and parcel of
bringing widespread telecommunications and computer networking
to much of Alaska.

Language evolution is one aspect in a much larger topology of
the evolution of society as the technology of communications has

I'm not objecting to the slang use of the term. It is convenient.
The convenience alone justifies its use as slang. I do object
to the idea that it has, through use, achieved status as part
of the standard photographic vocabulary.

Well... a short review of what google turns up suggests that
objecting is a waste of time. Tilting at windmills... ;-)

So? I could probably come up with a single paragraph that used
at least 4 or 5 different meanings for the word "prime".

It would be interesting to see such a paragraph in which
at least four out of the five uses had no obvious connection
to the concept of "first" indicated by the word "prime."
I would like to see you try.

Why would it have to be where four out of five have no
connection to the etymology of the word? The use of the word to
mean "fixed focal length" has it roots in that. Your merely
proposing a ridiculous shift of the goal posts.

I don't think I'm shifting goal posts. I'm not asking for four
uses which have no possible connection to "first," but only for
four uses where the nature of the connection is obscure.

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".

That is just trivia, and insignificant.

that make the more recently evolved meanings incorrect just
because there is also an older meaning?

No, but creating additional meanings for an existing technical
term could be a problem.

A lot of things "could be a problem". So what?

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.

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
soldering iron. He also said that just about everyone was
positive that anybody who dealt with the stuff they did was some
kind of weirdo, with a social disease or something. Highly
suspect, at a minimum.

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. 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.

Photography and optics has changed relatively slowly by
comparison. Perhaps that's why you are uncomfortable with the
evolution of words, and to me that is just one more fascinating
aspect of communications.

*Not* creating some such term would definitely be a problem.

Leaving it understood as a common slang term would seem
to fit our actual needs just fine.

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?

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

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.

Right, if context is not actually everything, it is a lot of it.
I've got no strong objection to "prime lens" as a handy bit
of slang to refer to fixed focal length lenses, but if it starts
to look as if some people are treating it as if it were a proper
part of the technical lexicon then it may be time to object.

Wrong. That is when it is already far too late to object. All
you get then is someone like me making fun of you for refusing
to accept reality... :-)

There's no point in objecting to slang when it is used as such.

Sure. But like I said... try to draw a line between when it is
and when it isn't, and you *can't*.

The slowly creaping respectability of the term is a relatively
recent phenomenon. I have dozens of books about photography,


only one, published in 2000, contains "prime lens" in the sense
of "fixed focal length lens." It would be interesting if someone
could dig up the earliest print uses in photography books.

Interesting trivia, but again that just isn't really significant.

It's a done deal. We might as well get used to it.

I'll grant that if you had asked me 20-30 years ago if I thought
it would be a good idea to use that term in that way, *I* would
have been on your side at that time. But undoing history isn't
something I'm up to. But that happens with a lot of words. For
example, I really really wish that "hacker" was not equated with
"cracker" the way it is today. But it is.

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...

And on a more
technical note, we hear about high speed T1 or T3 lines in the
telephone industry all the time... and almost every time you
hear someone say T1 or T3 what they are talking about is a DS1
or a DS3. We live with it though...

I'm afraid I'm not familiar enough with the field to comment
much, but based on what you say, it would seem that T1 is sometimes
used as slang when DS1 is the correct designation for that line.

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".

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
different too.

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

(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.)

FloydL. Davidson
Ukpeagvik (Barrow, Alaska)