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Analog Angle Blog

When a phrase does a ‘180,’ it’s easy to get confused

It's not news that some phrases and words get out of date or are made obsolete by technology and societal changes, yet are still used frequently—often without the user even knowing what the phrase means. This can, of course, cause confusion on the listener's end. Think of “you sound like a broken record” and you'll know what I mean.

But sometimes, a phrase or term changes its meaning to something quite different or even to an opposite meaning—doing what we call “a 180” (degrees, that is). That can work against unambiguous and clear communication between speaker and audience.

A few such phrases came to mind recently when I was “drifting off” while listening to an old-timer talk about the good old days (or was it the bad old days?). I came up with some examples of terms which now mean something quite different than their original intent:

•”Alias”: used to be a false name used mainly by criminals, now it can be just an innocent, alternate web-related address.

•”Swipe”: used to mean to steal something, until I heard the store clerk ask, “can I swipe your card?” My initial reaction was “no, you can't” until I realized what he really meant was run it through the card reader.

•”He's a tweeter”: my first thought was that the man was some sort of high-frequency audio source, but in fact, it meant he was a heavy user of Twitter.

•”Discriminate”: used to mean to demonstrate taste and class (“he has discriminating taste in coffee”); in circuit engineering, it referred to a function in the signal-processing chain of an FM receiver;but now, it has very negative connotations.

My takeaway lesson: you have to be careful when you are presenting your ideas an audience, whether in person or via a posting—especially if the demographics and regional biases of that audience are unknown to you.

In the Boston area, for example, lots of older folks still use the phrase “drop a dime” to refer to using a pay phone (!) to anonymously report a crime. In fact, local officials recently proudly promoted a “drop a dime” anti-bullying hotline for students.

I wonder: Do the students have any idea what this is about? Drop a dime? Where? On the sidewalk? Do I pick it up? What do I do with the dime I pick up? And what does “drop a dime” have to do with anything, anyway? I'm sure many of them have no idea what a pay phone is.

Think about it: are there technical, engineering terms and phrases which you hear—or use yourself—which are not just obsolete, but now may have very different (or even contrary) implications, when compared to their original intent? ?

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