English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

Digital footprint

Q: Our local public radio station advertises that it broadcasts “digital.” This doesn’t sound right to me. I would say that it broadcasts “digitally.” Am I correct?

A: It doesn’t sound right to us either. A radio station broadcasts “digitally,” not “digital.”

We’ve checked eight standard dictionaries and all of them of say “digital” is solely an adjective and “digitally” is the adverb. The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, agrees.

And a search of the News on the Web Corpus, a database of billions of words from newspapers and magazines on the internet, shows that contemporary publications use the two terms that way.

As you know, a verb is generally modified by an adverb, not an adjective, which is why a radio station broadcasts “digitally,” not “digital.”

However, adjectives are used with linking verbs (or copulas) like “be,” “become,” “feel,” “look,” and “seem.” Linking verbs convey a state or condition, rather than an activity.

In fact, a good example of this usage is “to go digital” (to become digital, or computerized), as in “The film business has gone digital.” The word “go” in this case is a linking verb because it means “become.” We’ll have more to say about “go digital” later, but let’s look now at some “digital” etymology.

English adopted the word “digital” in the 15th century from digitālis, classical Latin for “measuring a finger’s breadth.” The Latin for “finger” or “finger’s breadth” is digitus.

In English, the word “digital” was originally a noun and an adjective referring to a digit, a whole number less than 10.

The first examples in the Oxford English Dictionary for both the noun and the adjective are from The Art of Nombryng (circa 1450), an anonymous treatise based on a work by the 13th-century French scholar Alexander de Villa Dei.

The noun is now obsolete so we’ll cite only an adjectival example: “Neither of the subtraccioun, tille it come to the first figure vnder the whiche is a digitalle nombre to be founde” (from The Earliest Arithmetics in English, 1922, edited by Robert Steele).

In the mid-17th century, people began using the adjective “digital” in senses “relating to fingers or finger-like structures,” according to the OED. The dictionary’s first example is an entry from Glossographia, a 1656 dictionary by Thomas Blount: “Digital, pertaining to a finger.”

Here’s a modern example of this sense from The Horrors of the Half-Known Life, a book written in 2000 by G. J. Barker-Benfield about the attitudes of men, especially male doctors, toward women in the 19th century:

“He could emulate ‘the finger of God’ by digital examination and repair of reproductive organs.”

The modern technological senses of “digital” began showing up in the 1940s. Here are the most common technical areas where the adjective is used and the earliest Oxford citations:

Signals, information, or data: “In the transmission of direct current digital impulses over a long line the characteristics of the line tend to mutilate the wave shape” (from a 1940 patent for an electrical communications system).

Computers and calculators: “Description of the ENIAC and comments on electronic digital computing machines” (from a 1945 report by the Applied Mathematics Panel, a US agency dealing with mathematical problems during World War II).

Other electronic measurement devices: “Digital voltmeter or potentiometer” (from An Introduction to Electronics, 1964, by Bernard Vincent Rollin).

Audio, video, and other recorded works: “The limb appears in … a few real-time digital A-camera frames” (from the Oct. 3, 1969, issue of Science).

Musical instruments: “A digital electronic organ wherein a digital representation of an organ pipe waveshape is stored in a memory” (from a 1970 patent for a digital electronic organ).

Clocks, watches, and other timepieces: “Digital clock covers a 24-hour period” (from an ad in the Jan. 10, 1958, issue of Science).

Computer culture, on the internet: “The worldwide digital revolution” (from the July 28, 1983, issue of Electronics).

As for “to go digital,” the first example in the OED is from the May 18, 1964, issue of Electronics: “A comparison of factors that influence the decision to go digital or analog.” And if you’d like to read more about linking verbs like “go” here, we discuss them in items #4 and #5 of our Q&A about English.

We’ll end with some other “digital” expressions  and the earliest OED dates: “digital calculator” (1946), “digital TV” (1959), “digital camera” (1961),  “digital audio” (1969), “digital signature” (1976), “digital art” (1978), “digital video disk” (1978),  “digital money” (1984), “digital photo” (1986), “digital rights” (1990), “digital economy” (1994), and “digital footprint” (1995).

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