Release notes: hi-fi, sci-fi, DIY

Release notes: hi-fi, sci-fi, DIY

Edmund Weiner investigates the journey of some of the words added to the OED in the past year, including hi-fi, which has been added in this month’s update.

Hi-fi, sci-fi, DIY. Three expressions which, for me, typify the late lamented Twentieth Century.

The concept of do-it-yourself is the earliest of the three. Not surprisingly, the phrase is first recorded, as an adjective, in the United States in 1910: ‘the “do-it-yourself” method’, redolent of the struggle for self-improvement and self-reliance of that era. A series of ‘Do It Yourself books’ was launched in Britain, predictably perhaps, almost two decades later, in 1928.

In the early 1950s the noun arrived. What could be more fifties-ish than the image of the family man spending his weekend on improving the home: ‘Canadian males are great devotees of do-it-yourself’ (The Times, 1957). Shortly afterwards followed a loosening of the adjective so that it could mean ‘done by a non-specialist, amateur’: ‘do-it-yourself tattoos’, for example.

The phrase science fiction appeared somewhat earlier, but not as we know it. In the nineteenth century there are lone occurrences where the meaning is ‘fiction depicting some aspect of science’ (1851) and ‘an unlikely scientific theory’ (1881), and one isolated application to a work of fiction featuring hypothetical science (1897). But the name of the genre really blasted off in 1927: ‘Jules Verne was a sort of Shakespeare in Science Fiction’(AmazingStories), closely followed by its adjective in 1929 (‘Science Fiction stories of the air’). We recall that this is the great age of amateur rocketry.

High fidelity sound was first heard in 1933—accompanying motion pictures, of course, but shortly afterwards via wireless receivers. By 1938 RCA Victrola was using the noun in its ad ‘Record and radio entertainment in a distinguished 18th Century Cabinet. Has Gentle Action Automatic Record Changer.. High Fidelity… Magic Voice…Crystal Pick-up’. The antonym low-fidelity followed in 1939.

Two of our three expressions were first coined as attributive adjectives. It is highly characteristic of post-1900 English to allow, or indeed encourage, multi-word expressions to stand in front of nouns as premodifiers. Do-it-yourself is a particularly notable case. Even before attachment to a following noun, it’s already a rather complex verb phrase formed with an imperative verb, object, and complementary reflexive pronoun. The phrase, as a moral exhortation, goes back to the latter part of the nineteenth century: ‘A Hint to Young Women Whose Hands are Idle…  The answer is simple. Do it yourself. It may sound alarming to speak of recovering with your own hands those chairs, sofa, etc.’ (1881).

All three expressions have abbreviated forms (which happen to rhyme) that exemplify word-forming processes almost unknown to English before the last century. Hi-fi came first, in 1935: note the abbreviation of fidelity to fi and consequent change of pronunciation to match the first syllable, together with the respelling of high (already established in commercial contexts around 1901, e.g. ‘Youths hi-cut shoes’).

DIY came next (1953), a typical twentieth-century three-letter initialism, followed in 1954 by sci-fi, showing even more ruthless abbreviation of both words than in hi-fi, on which it may have been modelled. (Note that purists use SF (coined as early as 1929), regarding sci-fi as denoting poor-quality, unoriginal science fiction).

In each case the abbreviation was first used as an adjective, but became a noun within a year or two. And once established these terms generated derivatives and parallel expressions: do-it-yourselfer (1938), DIYer (1960), sci-fier (1961), lo-fi (1954). Lo-fi, in fact, has more uses than its model: it can mean ‘unpolished, amateurish, or technologically unsophisticated, esp. as a deliberate aesthetic choice’ and ‘a genre of rock music characterized by minimal production, giving a raw and unsophisticated sound’;  there is something parodic, even postmodern, about it that points beyond that era of earnest faith in analogue technology and one’s own hard work.

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