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Word trends: digital

The word digital is one which has become very much associated with the modern world. However, it is not a modern word. The OED’s entry for digital actually contains evidence for the word as far back as the 15th century with the sense, ‘designating a whole number less than ten’. Another early sense referred to the ‘digits’ (i.e. fingers) of the hand.

But despite this long history, digital was for many centuries a fairly unimportant word. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that it became significant and widespread – and it did so as a direct result of the invention of the modern computer.

A new type of computer

The earliest computers were what we now call analogue computers, which used continuous quantities such as voltage to compute the desired quantity through analogy. However, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the work of mathematicians and engineers led to the development of a new type of computer. These new machines operated upon data that was represented as a series of numerical digits. For example, in such a system the letter A might be represented as the sequence ‘01000001’.

Being composed of such sequences of digits, such data (and hence any machine making use of it) became known as digital. Digital computers were generally considered more adaptable and powerful than their analogue counterparts, and digital computing completely took over: the computer you are reading this article on will certainly be a digital one, as will probably any other computer you have ever used.

However, the development of digital did not stop here. From the late 1970s, digital computers and electronics, which had previously been the preserve of businesses and research institutions, started to become sufficiently inexpensive and compact to become suitable for use in the home. Subsequently, many types of information gained a digital equivalent: a laser disc could store a film as digital video and digital sound, digital music could be purchased on a CD, and filmless cameras could be used to produce a digital photograph. The word also came to be applied to different types of media: digital radio and digital television are increasingly important methods of broadcasting.

As well as becoming more widespread, as digital has become more significant to the general population, new senses with a wider meaning have also begun to emerge. Terms such as digital art, digital economy, and digital money have come into use, and digital has come to be applied to pretty much anything involving computer technology or the Internet – its associations with numerical digits being almost entirely forgotten.

The digital boom

The 20th century, then, proved to be something of a boom period for the word. However, it may be that the 21st century will see a fall in its usage for the simple reason that once something has become almost entirely ‘digital’, there’s no real need to specify it as such any more.

Digital computer is an example of this having already taken place: the term is not particularly common today for the simple reason that nearly all modern computers are digital ones, and so are simply called computers – it’s the much rarer analogue computer which must be denoted by an adjective. By the same process, as technologies such as digital photography and digital television entirely replace their analogue counterparts, they will perhaps come to simply be called photography and television. So as digital technology becomes ever more pervasive, the word digital itself may return to relative obscurity.


This article originally appeared on OED Online.