Etymology Usage

A website whatchamacallit

Q: Newspapers have columns, but what do you call the same thing on a website? The word “blog” isn’t quite right. Or is it? Any ideas about this whatchamacallit?

A: We think the cyber word for a column is “column,” and some googling suggests we’re not alone. Slate, for example, calls its regular writers “columnists.”

Here are the results of a few Google searches: “online column,” 110,000 hits; “blog column,” 31,000; “web column,” 26,800.

New technology has a way of adopting the terminology of the old, even if some of these words are anachronistic in their literal senses.

For example, we still speak of “dialing” a phone number, even though rotary phones with actual dials are now antiques. (We also still speak of “dial” tones and “speed dial.”)

And as we’ve written in our book Origins of the Specious, “dashboard” was a term from horse-and-buggy days that survived into the automobile era. (A dashboard was a board or apron that prevented the horses’ hooves from throwing mud onto passengers.)

We still speak of capturing a moment “on film” or going to see a “film,” even though photography has gone digital.

By the way, we adopted the word “column” in the 15th century from the Latin columna (a pillar or post), but it ultimately comes from an ancient Indo-European root meaning hill.

At first, the word referred to either a vertical division on a page or an architectural column. So how did it come to mean an Op-Ed, gossip, society, or other column that regularly appears in a newspaper?

The Oxford English Dictionary traces this usage to the sense of those vertical columns of text as “receptacles for the news, etc., which ‘fill the columns’ of these publications.”

“Hence,” the OED adds, “in extended use: a special feature, esp. one of a regular series of articles or reports.”

And now we see a new extended use. The text on a website is not measured in “column” inches as in a newspaper, but we call a regularly appearing article on the Internet a “column.”

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