Phrases from Obsolete Technology

Some words survive long after the technology that made us use the words in the first place. Today, we look at words we get from typewriters, old telephones, and more.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #578
obsolete technology words


Have you ever wondered about the origin of “cc,” a setting you likely use when sending an email message? Perhaps you are also curious about why the word “dime” appears in “drop a dime on” someone and “dime store.” Tune in to learn about some examples of modern usage that come from old or obsolete technology like typewriters and pay phones.

Typewriters (CC/Underlining)

Before smart phones, tablets, computers, and printers, there were typewriters, first manual and then electric. The first mention of a patent for something resembling a typewriter occurred in 1714, during the reign of Queen Anne in Britain. Mr. Henry Mill, an engineer, received a patent for “An artifical [sic] machine or method for the impressing or transcribing of letters singly or progressively one after another, as in writing…” This invention apparently went nowhere, because the next mention of a typewriter-related patent came more than 100 years later, in 1829 in America. Manual typewriters didn’t become practical until the late 1800s, and by 1909, typewriters were so popular that 89 manufacturers in America were producing them.

Typewriters were certainly an improvement on writing out everything by hand, but they did have limitations. Unlike with a printer these days, you couldn’t just print copies of something if you were using a typewriter. And that leads us to the origin of “cc,” which stands for “carbon copy.” If you were typing something and wanted another copy, you would put a piece of carbon paper between two sheets of regular paper. What you typed would be copied to the second piece of paper. The term “carbon paper” first appeared between 1875 and 1880, and “carbon copy” followed, coming into use between 1890 and 1895. The phrase “cc,” meaning to send a duplicate as far as business correspondence, appeared in 1936. You can now use “cc” as a verb, as in “I cc’d everyone in my department.” The word “cc’d” can be spelled either “cc’d” or “cc’ed,” with or without an “e.”

Another holdover from typewriters is underlining. These days, editors do not recommend using underlining for titles or to emphasize words. Instead, you can use italics or quotation marks for titles, depending on which style guide you follow, and bold for emphasis. In the days of typewriters, though, you couldn’t make text italics or bold. Typists had to go back and underline titles and emphasized words.

Telephones (Dial/Dimes)

Rotary phones and pay phones are two other old or obsolete technologies. For those of you who don’t know what a rotary phone is, it is an old-style telephone with a round dial. The numbers 0 through 9 appeared in a circle, as on a clock, and over each number was a metal plate that had round holes. For each number in a phone number, users put a finger in the appropriate round hole and moved their finger clockwise to dial the number. It took a while to dial a seven-digit number! These days, we do not actually dial a phone (unless we are using a very old telephone). However, we still use the word “dial” to mean “call” in expressions such as “Dial 911.”


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.

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