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Sharpening the quills

Some weeks ago, here at the paragraph factory, we got around to consolidating the staff in the main part of the newsroom. That meant that we wound up with a surplus of office equipment and supplies left over from the series of staff reductions over the past few years.

There was a certain amount of salvage. I collected three cartons of surplus dictionaries, some of them several years old but still serviceable, to donate to Glennor Shirley, the Maryland prison librarian, who says that inmates find them particularly useful.

But not everything was salvageable. I noticed a group of Rolodexes left forlornly on a counter for weeks. No one claimed them. No one wanted them. Many people in the newsroom keep telephone numbers and addresses in electronic files, which are easier to update and share.

So when an article arrived on the copy desk with a reference to a public figure who was going to have an opportunity to add to his “Rolodex of donors,” I wondered: Does he also give his staff mimeographed lists of donors? Do his secretaries type up stencils to run the fundraising letters through the Addressograph?

It is not just that adding donor names to the Rolodex is a cliche—though it certainly is that—but that it is a cliche that has come to look so dated.

I wonder what you see that conveys that sense that a writer has gone on automatic pilot and lost track of the era. If you see similar references to outdated vocabulary, please share.

And if you want to say, “Hey! I still use a Rolodex, and I don’t appreciate your smartass attitude,” well, the comments are open to you, too.


Posted by John McIntyre at 12:01 AM | | Comments (36)


Here is one: DIAL a number

There's one example that strikes me with its anachronous nature every time; I encounter it regularly in others, and use it all the time myself. Whether it's simply an Irish thing (or a Dublin thing, or a street where I live thing) I can't say, but 'tape' is pretty much the de facto verb for recording video. No one I know still has a VCR, but irrespective of the medium -- to DVD-R, PVR, whatever -- one tapes television programmes.

My husband refers to his Rolodex, too, even though he has kept his contact information on his computer for several years. Perhaps it's just a more convenient term than "contact list" or whatever we call it now. The one on my Mac is called an address book, which is perhaps about as anachronistic as a Rolodex.

I recently ran across a reference to a Vodaphone (or is it lowercase?).

So I'm an old fart: I store food in the icebox and ask people to hold the wire, even on cordless or cell calls.

There are no doubt hundreds of these that will live on for many decades, but in response to the very first one given, I think almost all of us will always use "hang up."

I use a dark blue Tiffany's address book and scribble other stuff in a moleskin journal from B&N. I have two VHs-DVD players and have another VHS player in case I require back-up. I'm an analog kind of girl but I realize the necessity of keeping up, up to a point. I still have tape decks in the house and in the car,along with CD players. No MP-3 players, and no other things with initials I can't translate. I don't think of people as "contacts."

In the same way that a Kindle could NEVER replace an actual paper and ink book... those hard drive based contact lists are a mere echo of what they are alleged to replace.

If your work allows you the luxury of a stationary base and an actual telephone handset that can be held still and functional between ear and shoulder while you thumb through looking for that mental trigger that reminds you why X rather than Y is the correct source or vendor or whatever...

crotchety Luddite

On my cell phone (am I the only one who still calls it a "cell phone" instead of a "cell"?) the icon on the button you use to call someone is a handset from a landline phone. I've seen estimates that up to 30% of Americans have no landline phone at home, they just use a cell phone. What icon will they use when nobody has a landline phone?

Living-fossil moment: Explaining to your kid the meaning of "sounds like a broken record."

I still hear "broken record" once in a while. This seems like one of those idioms that will last, like "cc" in e-mail.

I continue to see "Palm Pilot," even though that particular device, and brand name, effectively died in 1998, when Palm lost the "Pilot" trademark challenge. Yet the name lingers on. I wrote about it here:

Hey! I still use a Rolodex, and . . .

A quick check around my newsroom showed all the kiddies still use a Rolodex (by the way, what is the plural of Rolodex?)

The IPad idoloter has a Rolodex, and an index card holder. She was out of the office doing a face-to-face interview, something I am sure is frowned upon by modern technology.

The guy who used to be a reporter and transferred to making the Web do magic says he does not use his Rolodex too much anymore, but he seems to be spending all his time talking to electrons.

I'm old enough that the index finger of my right hand is bent from dialing police calls. I like punch phones better.

I'm with the wise guy who said "There are no new stories, only new reporters."

The technology has changed but they haven't come out with a Version 3.1 reporter.

The kids are all right.

I used to say that about a Kindle. Then I got one. And now I wouldn't be without it.

I admit I still refer to musical releases as albums, even when I download them from iTunes.

As for phones, at least I don't call it an ameche. (@mike: Vodaphone apparently is still around:

I caught myself about to say "carbon copy" in class today.

Although I haven't used one in years, I still refer to my collection of contacts as my Rolodex. To me, it has become iconic in the same way as the old fashioned dial phone.

Interestingly enough, the 20-somethings I work with all seem to understand exactly what I mean even though none of them have actually used one and most have never seen one.

My husband's family uses Rolodex as a verb. It describes that anxious worrying one does - often in bed at night - where one goes through one worry after another, over and over, back to the beginning, over and over...I find it very evocative. But my husband remarked recently that soon enough no one will understand it anymore.

Dare I confess that I still use a Rolodex? And that I am the last living American over the age of 9 not to own a cell phone? And I get a real paycheck, not direct deposit.

I have a real telephone that looks like an older version: a dial with touch buttons. It's somewhat reassuring. I also have a typewriter under my desk, with which I refuse to part. (The typewriter, not the desk - pardon the syntax. I'm watching Virginia Tech trying to beat Purdue in overtime.)

@Robin: An album refers to a collection of songs, so it applies to downloads now just as it did to a collection of 78s way back when. Record is a bit more ambiguous, but inasmuch as it's shorthand for "recording," you wouldn't be wrong.

LP, however, refers specifically to a 12-inch vinyl disc playable at 33 1/3, just as 45 refers to the seven-inch vinyl disc, not one song -- a "single" in any format -- that is on the A side.

Also, a Walkman is specifically a cassette player. If it plays CDs, it's a Discman. And while your iPod does, indeed, play MP3s, not all MP3 players are iPods, just as not all facial tissues are Kleenex.

@JD Considine: Walkman used to refer specifically to a portable cassette player, but the term was eventually (officially) applied to most of Sony's music-playing products. I listened to CDs on a Discman during high school, but by the time I got to college and got a new one, it was a Walkman. Apparently, I can now get a Walkman-branded MP3 player, if I really wanted to. The More You Know.

A dial that doesn't dial, Patricia? Do you find that serves?

Album is an interesting holdover. It got attached to musical recordings in the days when pieces of music too long to fit on a 78 rpm recording were put on multiple discs and collected in books, much like a photo album (back when those were invariably printed on pieces of paper). It survived the transition to 33-1/3 rpm discs and could refer to a single disc that had many pieces of music or one long piece.

Picky, Picky, Picky - The dial, round as in days of telephone lore, is circular, rather than the characterless square on recent models. One pushes the buttons instead of dialing (with that satisfying click as the dial retreats to its resting position) but at least it's a semblance of the former telephone. It serves, but I miss the sound of the actual dialing. Can you imagine Barbara Stanwick tooting and tweeting rather than dialing and clicking to get the operator's attention? It just doesn't have the same ambient sound, so to speak.

If you've had too much Latin (can there be such a thing?) the plural of Rolodex is Rolodices. Otherwise, I fear it's simply Rolodexes. And of course there is Kleenex, Kleenices! (Third declension, masculine.) Ave, Alicia!

No, I can't, but then my life experience does not yet encompass tweeting. Going back a technological generation, however, I can imagine Miss Stanwyck texting. Malevolently.

Hey, can I have one of those Rolodexes?

I shouldn't neglect to mention newspapers that publish material from "wire services."

Or that "spike" it.

Picky - I do not Tweet either.I agree that Miss Stanwyck would add malevolence to the enterprise. And can you imagine Hitch's "Touch M for Murder?" No No and again No!

Oh, I don't know ... To place an order, press zero. To hear your current balance, press one. To answer a short questionnaire, press two. For account queries, press three. For murder, press four. Yep, that would do fine.

Spotted a good example yesterday - the writer gave a tip to readers to "save time by listening on audio tapes."

While there are still some cassette recorders out there, a few Walkmans in circulation, that's essentially dead Tech.

We see references to "slide shows." My editor told me I had to come up with a new phrase because, he said, nobody uses slides anymore. However, the photo manager on my computer has a "slide show" function, so I feel the term has evolved with technology.

@Jennifer: Of course the term "slide show" has evolved. Does your editor lead a Power Point-free life? If so, I'm envious.

"what is the plural of Rolodex?"

"Rolodices," of course.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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