This week’s installment in our regular “Wordwatch” feature: “Luddite.” Brooke discovered that the word’s meaning has evolved over the last century, from violence-prone saboteur to passive technophobe.
Word Watch: Luddite
August 11, 2001
BOB GARFIELD: This week there were more than 30 citations of the word "Luddite" in the English language press. That's pretty typical whenever a high tech subject such as this weeks fetal stem cell controversy dominates the headlines. Why does this centuries old word, "Luddite," endure? We answer that question in this installment of our ongoing feature called Word Watch.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Starting off with the Oxford English dictionary we see that in 1779 somewhere in Leicestershire England a man named Ned Ludd broke into a house in a fit of insane rage and destroyed two machines used for knitting stockings. Now this is legend, of course, but by around 1811, Ludd had transformed into a mythical figure called Captain or King Ludd, and the Luddites were leaving thousands of mangled knitting machines in their wake. By then, knitting machines had been putting workers out of work for more than two centuries. Though Luddite is an English word, it was by no means an exclusively English phenomenon.
MARK ARANOV: There's the wonderful French term "saboteur" and that comes from the French word "sabot" --the old fashioned French wooden shoe. Sabotage comes from the act of throwing one's wooden shoe into a machine that's like throwing a spanner in the works or as John Lennon would have said, a Spaniard in the works.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mark Aranov [sp?] is a professor of linguistics and editor of Language, the journal of the linguistic society of America.
MARK ARANOV: It was fairly general throughout the industrial revolution in Europe.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Getting back to the word "Luddite," when it was originally coined it meant someone who committed acts of civil disobedience. Now in the last five years we've seen an explosion in the use of the word but it doesn't mean the same thing!
MARK ARANOV: Right. I think a true modern Luddite would be somebody like the Unabomber.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In his 1995 manifesto, the philosopher/terrorist Ted Kacynski declared technology to be the most powerful social force, more powerful even than the desire for freedom. Technology, he said, entices us into a series of small compromises. We exchange our autonomy for small conveniences, and once lost, our freedom is gone forever because technology can never be reversed. Mark Aranov.
MARK ARANOV: My wife very proudly declares herself to be a Luddite.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: She bought an electric typewriter when a computer invaded her home. She resisted electric car doors till she no longer had a choice about it, and she'll never, ever use cruise control.
MARK ARANOV: She doesn't want the car to think for itself. She wants to be the one to tell the car, okay, car, you shift now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Aranov says that in the last decade the word "Luddite" has taken a different route from that of saboteur. Saboteur has long lost its machine-hating origins. It now means a sneaky destroyer, while Luddite has retained the emotional charge and dropped the connotation of violence.
MARK ARANOV: The new sense which I think we're all very comfortable with doesn't seem to occur in any of the dictionaries. I think what we're seeing here is language in the process of change.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Some 85 percent of us are uneasy around machines. About a third of us are what's called "resisters." That anxiety might explain why the use of the word "Luddite" has grown so much over the past decade. In the New York Times it's more than doubled every 5 years since 1985. If that progression holds, in the years between 2060 and 2065, the newspaper will have used the word more than one and a half million times. But if that usage really reflects concern, that day will never come, because long before that all the Luddites among us will have dropped their resistance or become saboteurs. [MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the biggest book contract in history and copycats in the commercial biz.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from National Public Radio.
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