Read “Lederer on Language” every Saturday in the San Diego Union Tribune and on this site.
Welcome to the website woven for wordaholics, logolepts, and verbivores. Carnivores eat meat; herbivores eat plants and vegetables; verbivores devour words. If you are heels over head (as well as head over heels) in love with words, tarry here a while to graze or, perhaps, feast on the English language. Ours is the only language in which you drive in a parkway and park in a driveway and your nose can run and your feet can smell.

Dear Mr. Lederer: Recently, I heard President Obama say, “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse,” and I got to wondering how many outdated sayings like this are still in common use. “Don’t lock the barn after the horse runs away” and “he can’t hit the broad side of a barn” would be two traceable to our rural past. Have adages gone out of style? Or am I just not listening? — Conrad Funk, Scripps Ranch

Until the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the United States, the human drama remained unchanged during the lifetime of the average human being. Only the cast of characters playing out that human drama changed. Now it seems that the setting of the play itself is revised every day.

The whirled world spins faster, and the speed of technical advance can make us dizzy. Hail and farewell to rumble seats and running boards. Iceboxes and Frigidaires. Victrolas and hi-fi’s. Fountain pens and inkwells. Party lines. Test patterns. Tennis presses. Slide rules. Manual typewriters. Corrasable Bond. Ditto for Photostats and mimeographs. (Do you, like me, remember that turpentiney smell of the mimeo fluid?)

The inexorable advance of technology shapes our culture and the language that reflects it. Terms that echo obsolete technologies resonate beyond their time. We used to watch the tube, but televisions aren’t made of tubes anymore, so that figure of speech has pretty much disappeared.

We used to dial telephone numbers and dial up people and places. Now that almost all of us have converted from rotary to push-button phones to cell phones to smartphones, we search for a new verb — “Sorry, I must have pushed the wrong number”; “I think I’ll punch up Doris”; “I’ve got to index-finger the Internal Revenue Service”; Press M for Murder — and watch dial dying on the vine.

With modern radios, the demise of don’t touch that dial! hurries near. How many more years will we say hot off the press, now that we no longer print using hot lead? How long will hung out to dry hang on when so few of us hang wet clothes on clotheslines anymore? How many of us these days understand I’ve been put through the wringer as a metaphor alluding to the old wringer washing machines? And who among us understands the true meaning of your plan’s a carbon copy of her plan when we no longer make copies with carbon?

Do I sound like a broken record? Do you think I must have been vaccinated with a phonograph needle? Nowadays nobody owns a phonograph and plays records, yet these metaphors persist — for now. Still, these figurative expressions are fading away, like sepia photographs in a family album.

Do any young folks still say, “This is where we came in?” The statement means the action or situation is starting to repeat itself, and it comes from the movies. Today there are so many ways of finding out exactly when a movie begins, but back in the olden days we’d get to the theater at pretty much any time and walk in at random. We might watch the last half of a movie and then some trailers, a newsreel and cartoons (which the multiplexes don’t offer anymore) and then the second movie in the double feature and then the beginning of the first movie until the point where we could say, “This is where we came in.”

Note that word trailers. Back when, the coming attractions reel would be spliced onto the end of the last reel of the movie. That’s why we have a cinematic meaning for “trailer,” which dates from 1928. From the perspective of the audience member who arrived on time or a little early, the coming attractions would appear before the feature, even though technically they come at the end.

Please send your questions and comments about language to richard.lederer@utsandiego.com