The latest 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
January 21, 2001
JEFF GOLDBLUM: Dinosaurs had their shot, and nature selected them for extinction!
JURASSIC PARK DINOSAUR RE-CREATOR: I simply don't understand this Luddite attitude. Especially from a scientist! I mean how can we stand in the light of discovery and, and not act?!
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 ARONOFF: 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 Aronoff is a professor of linguistics and editor of Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America.
MARK ARONOFF: 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 ARONOFF: Right. I think-- a true modern Luddite would be somebody like the Unabomber.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: In his 1995 Manifesto, the philosopher-terrorist Ted Kazinski 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 Aronoff.
MARK ARONOFF: 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 ARONOFF: 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: Aronoff 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 ARONOFF: 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 eighty-five 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 five 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.