The word of the week is ‘computer’, 1920s fashion

look_it_up_T httpwww.clipartpal.comclipart_pdeducationdictionary_10586.htmlThe  Oxford English Dictionary, prepared between 1884 and 1928 for the Clarendon Press, is a wonderful book. As is its 1971 Compact edition, which is the whole thing in two volumes – unabridged and complete, but rendered down in micro-printing. You need a magnifying glass to read it. I use it reasonably often.

One of the words in it is ‘computer’. Which, back then, meant ‘one who computes’, ‘a person employed to make calculations in an observatory’. The assiduous researchers at the OED project traced the word back to 1646 with some eighteenth century usages by Horace Walpole.

The only place I’ve seen it used in that context is E E ‘Doc’ Smith’s Spacehounds of IPC, written in 1930, where the hero, Percy ‘Steve’ Stevens, worked as – well, you’ve guessed it, a computer.

I should add that among the OED’s staff in the 1920s was one J R R Tolkien. I believe he had quite a lot to do with their definition of the word ‘walrus’.


Your challenge? Use today’s obscure word in a sentence, down in the comments.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

10 thoughts on “The word of the week is ‘computer’, 1920s fashion

  1. The OED is a valuable resource for writers, not only for the obvious reasons (meanings and spellings), but for information such as when a word began to be used, and how its meaning may have changed over the years (such as your example in this post). Those who don’t have a copy (most of us, I suspect) may want to check if their public library subscribes to the online version as a service to its users.


    1. It’s a fantastic publication. The full OED really needs to be accompanied by the Concise version these days – the print edition hasn’t been updated since 1997 (there’s a full Third Edition in the works now) whereas the Consise gets more regular editions and includes a lot of recent slang that’s enviegled its way into English in the last few years. The version I have access to is a 1971 printing of the First Edition (1884-1928) which definitely needs the Concise as a companion.

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  2. The compilers of the 1971 Compact edition of the Oxford English Disctionary would be surprised to see that less than half a century later would no longer use the word computer to describe a person. It would, on fact, refer to a machine that has progressively taken over many of the tasks a man used to do.


  3. Oops missed part of the sentence there. Spent the last few days on book 4 and I am now square-eyed. Hope the sense of what I said in the comment is there LOL


  4. Ha! Spacehounds of IPC was exactly the book I thought of when I read this headline. I might have to dig out Wylie and Balmer’s When Worlds Collide and see if, in the early part of the book, they use the word in that fashion.


    1. It’s intriguing how the word was co-opted for the new meaning. I guess there are a lot of twentieth century inventions that did that – ‘motor carriage’ springs to mind – along with other words such as ‘aeronaut’ which were great neologisms in the 1920s but have somehow fallen out of use since, even as aircraft have become part of everyday life.

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