Common Phrases Based on Obsolete Technologies

The English language is in a constant state of evolution. Its ability to change, to adapt, to build and rebuild, to eradicate usage that has become irrelevant to the modern day’s successful communication is what makes it the beautiful hodge-podge that it is.

However, this adaptability and shifting doesn’t come without a certain amount of lag time between the words we use and their origin. Our language is, in fact, littered with words and phrases that hearken to a time of “yesteryear,” which has resulted in words and phrases that we use today with little thought given to the original intention of the language.

Many great examples of this evolutionary process can be found in phrases that are based on obsolete technologies. Take a look and consider the following phrases that are rooted in technological advancements no longer in use:

Through the wringer

This phrase refers to the clothes washing process when a machine was used to squeeze or wring out the water from the article of clothing. The wringer was designed by Ellen Elgin in the late 19th century. The Institute of Black Invention and Technology does a great job explaining the role of Ellen Elgin in the invention of the clothes wringer. Nowadays, however, to put someone “through the wringer” is to put them into a tight or difficult spot.

Cut and paste

We obviously cut and paste frequently on our word processors, but there was a time that the simple act of using flour and water to get something to stick to a new spot was the only way to do this…and on real paper, too. This process of cutting and pasting was common for those working on print layouts for local newspapers.

Roll the windows down

Even with power windows, we’re still quick to say that our windows need to be “rolled up or down.” This feature of a manual window that you have to crank isn’t typically found in any of the newer models of vehicles.

Punch in and punch out

This phrase is still used today to describe the “clocking in” and “clocking out” feature of many time management systems, most of which are web-based. The original term, however, describes the old process of taking your own punch card and entering it into a machine that would manually punch the area to show what time it was at the start of your shift.

Burning the midnight oil

Before electricity was discovered, it was common for one to be finishing their work by burning the midnight oil. We now use the saying to enunciate that someone has stayed up late into the night to finish a project.

Tune in

There was a time when radios and televisions required the user to use a tuner to hear or see their desired picture. The tuner would be adjusted to allow the user to pick up a certain frequency that would give them access to their desired television show.

Mind your P’s and Q’s

This is a fascinating phrase which, some theorize, has to do with the beginnings of the printing press and process. Back when the press would stamp the words together on paper, the operator was to take extra care when it came to lining up the lowercase versions of “p” and “q,” so as to not mix them up. Proper training was essential to ensure that the correct format was used. Today, the phrase is used to remind someone to perform the correct procedure or behavior for the task in front of them. For an idea of how this may have worked, check out this great article on the printing press from the Colonial Williamsburg Journal on

Though the origins of many of these phrases are, as you can see, of little relevancy to our modern society, it can be helpful to understand how and why these phrases came into being, if only to understand where we might be headed in the future.

Image credit: Steve Jurvetson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *