Q: David Vladeck, head of the US Bureau of Consumer Protection, has described himself as “essentially a Luddite” who isn’t on Facebook or Twitter. I thought a Luddite was someone opposed to technological change, but now it’s apparently someone who isn’t technologically with it. What do you think?
A: The term “Luddite” has taken on new life in the computer age. Interestingly, the word was born in another period of technological upheaval – the Industrial Revolution.
The Oxford English Dictionary says it originally meant “a member of an organized band of English mechanics and their friends, who (1811-16) set themselves to destroy manufacturing machinery in the midlands and north of England.”
The word is capitalized because it’s said to be based on a proper name, Ned Lud or Ludd. Who was he? The history is unclear, but the OED cites a story in George Pellew’s Life of Lord Sidmouth (1847).
Ned Lud, a “person of weak intellect who lived in a Leicestershire village about 1779,” supposedly rushed into a hosiery-maker’s house “in a fit of insane rage” and destroyed two frames used to knit stockings.
As a result, so the story goes, “the saying ‘Lud must have been here’ came to be used throughout the hosiery districts when a stocking-frame had undergone extraordinary damage.”
The OED’s verdict? “The story lacks confirmation.”
The dictionary’s first citation for the use of the word in print is from The Annual Register (1811), a yearly British publication that recorded and commented on great events in history:
“The rioters assumed the name of Luddites and acted under the authority of an imaginary Captain Ludd.”
The noun Luddism (defined as “the practice of the Luddites”) first appeared in The Annual Register the following year: “Several persons have been apprehended [at Huddersfield] on various charges of Luddism.”
Today, a “Luddite” is more generally defined as “one who opposes the introduction of new technology, esp. into a place of work,” the OED says. And “Luddism” is “intense dislike of or opposition to technological innovation.”
But those definitions are from the OED’s second edition (1989) and have no citations more recent than 1986.
That’s practically the Dark Ages from a technological point of view, long before iPhones, Facebook, ebooks, iPads, Twitter, and all the rest.
It’s been our observation that “Luddite” and “Luddism” don’t have such bitter connotations anymore.
Many people who call themselves “Luddites” these days do so humorously, and merely mean they aren’t on the cutting edge of technology or, as you say, with it.
And here’s an aside. At more than 250 years old, The Annual Register is still in business and is now available online. Nothing Luddite about it.
Check out our books about the English language