By Richard Holden, OED

In lexicography it is often easier to identify developments in the meaning and usage of a word than it is to determine their causes. The quotation evidence that we adduce will often clearly show a new sense in use; what it less frequently provides is an explanation as to why that new sense has arisen.

Scientific and technological terms are often an exception to this. A new invention (or any concept relating to it) needs a name, and if this invention becomes widespread, the associated vocabulary can do too. Such is the case with digital, which underwent an explosion in usage and in meaning in the twentieth century as a direct result of the development of modern computing.

What distinguishes digital from many other terms associated with high technology is that it’s not a new word. In the newly revised OED entry, the earliest evidence—in the sense ‘designating a whole number less than ten’—dates from the fifteenth century. OED‘s original entry, published in 1897, does not record this sense. Instead, it covers senses corresponding to another sense of digit, such as: ‘of or pertaining to a finger, or to the fingers or digits’—evidence for which goes back to the seventeenth century. But for most of its history, digital was a relatively unimportant term: it wasn’t until the early to mid-twentieth century that the word became more significant and widespread.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the work of mathematicians and engineers led to the development of a new type of computing machine. As opposed to earlier analogue devices, which used a continuous quantity (such as voltage) to compute the desired quantity by analogy, these new machines operated upon data that was represented as a series of discrete digits. For example, in such a system the letter A might be represented as the binary sequence ‘01000001’ (as it is in the ASCII encoding scheme).

Being composed of such sequences of digits, such data (and so any machine making use of it) was hence said to be digital. Digital computers were generally considered more adaptable and powerful than their analogue counterparts, and digital computing became dominant: the computer you are reading this article on will certainly be a digital one, as will probably any other computer you have ever used. The sense of digital relating to this was covered in OED2 (1989) by the definition, ‘of, pertaining to, or using digits; spec. applied to a computer which operates on data in the form of digital or similar discrete elements.’

However, the development of digital did not stop here. From the late 1970s, digital computers and electronics, which had previously been the preserve of businesses and research institutions, started to become sufficiently inexpensive and compact to be suitable for use in the home. Subsequently, many types of information gained a digital equivalent: a laser disc could store a film as ‘digital video’ and ‘digital sound’, a ‘digital recording’ could be purchased on a CD, and filmless cameras could be used to produce ‘digital photographs’. The word also came to be applied to different types of media: digital radio and digital television are increasingly important methods of broadcasting.

As well as becoming more widespread, as digital has gained greater significance, so senses with a looser meaning have begun to emerge. Terms such as digital art, digital economy, and digital money are now covered in the revised entry, along with a more general sense: ‘involving or relating to digital or computer technology, esp. the Internet’. Similarly, another new sense—‘designating a virtual, computer-mediated counterpart of an object that exists in the real world’—covers such entities as digital negatives, digital shopping carts, and digital ink. Whole organizations or countries can now be described as digital, when they are seen to adopt or embrace computer technology or the Internet. The OED itself has been cited as an example of this:

1984 N. Y. Mag. 15 Oct. 25/2 The Oxford English Dictionary is going digital. A $10-million, two-year project is now under way to convert the authoritative lexicon into bits and bytes.

The newly-revised entry for digital, then, shows the twentieth century to have been something of a boom period for the word. It may be that the twenty-first century, on the other hand, sees a fall in its usage: after all, once a field is entirely digital, there’s no real need to specify it as such any more.

Digital computer is an example of this having already taken place: the term is not particularly common today for the simple reason that nearly all modern computers are digital ones, and so are simply called computers—it’s the much rarer analogue computer which must be distinguished by means of an adjective. By the same process, as technologies such as digital photography and digital television entirely replace their analogue counterparts, they will perhaps come to simply be called photography and television. This is something the future editors of OED may need to consider when they come to revise the entry again, perhaps a century or so from now.

Where next with the OED Online?

  1. revised versions of digital and analogue appear as part of the December 2010 update of OED3. Updates are published four times a year, with details of recent additions available. December’s update also includes information, the subject of another OED word story.
  2. the OED Online includes more than 400 entries on the subject of computing that have entered the language since the mid-1970s—including user-friendly (1976), dongle (1982), and wiki (1995).

How do I search for this? With subscriber access, use Advanced search to find words by subject (here, science/technology, then ‘computing’) by a date range. Results may be ordered alphabetically, by date, or as a timeline, as here for all words connected with technology.

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