The Grammarphobia Blog

Is an analog dweeb a troglodyte?

Q: Your blog posting on “Luddite” made me think of an analog friend of mine. He’s pro-choice on technologies, but he refuses to choose the digital world himself. Is he a troglodyte?

A: We think you’d be stretching things a bit to call your friend a “troglodyte.”

When the word entered English in the mid-1500s, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to a member of “various races or tribes of men (chiefly ancient or prehistoric) inhabiting caves or dens (natural or artificial).”

In other words, a caveman—the genuine article, not Fred Flintstone or B.C.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says English borrowed “troglodyte” from French, but it’s ultimately derived from the Greek troglodytes (“literally, one who creeps into holes”).

In the mid-19th century, according to the OED, English speakers began using the word figuratively for a hermit, a slum dweller, a degraded person, or someone unfamiliar with the affairs of the world.

In an 1854 essay, for example, Henry Rogers accused the philosopher John Locke of being “such a very Troglodyte in metaphysics that he was not properly acquainted even with such writers as Descartes or Hobbes.”

Standard dictionaries now define a “troglodyte” as someone who’s reclusive, reactionary, brutish, or out of date.

Yes, your friend could be described as out of date, but the word “troglodyte” has a lot of dark overtones.

We’d prefer to describe someone who lives an analog life in the digital age as a “Luddite.”

In case you’re interested, this sense of “analog” first showed up in the early 1990s, according to citations in the OED.

It describes someone who’s “unaware of or unaffected by computer technology or digital communications; outdated, old-fashioned.”

The earliest OED cite is from an ad in a 1993 issue of Wired magazine for an electronic measuring tool:

“Trying to size up a room with a tape measure is not just a two-person operation; it’s also for analog dweebs.”

“Dweeb”? The OED defines it as a “person held in contempt, esp. one ridiculed as studious, puny, or unfashionable.”

The earliest citation is from a 1982 article by Alexander Theroux in the New York Times. We’ve gone to the Times archive to expand on this passage about vacationing families on Cape Cod:

“Mom and Dad stick to the quieter beaches, West Dennis, Harwich, East Sandwich. They try to keep the kids from cut knees, from drowning, from insulting any hoseheads and dweebs on motorcycles.”

We’ll stop now and save “hoseheads” for another occasion.

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