An interesting piece this past week in the Wall Street Journal by Ben Zimmer describes the decline of the word “stylus” in tech circles, even though the device itself is experiencing a resurgence of interest (with newer, larger phones/phablets becoming popular). We talk in class about shifts in language, and vocabulary is definitely one of the primary ways in which language change over time. What’s interesting to me about these changes in word choice is how they reflect on our societal and cultural preferences.
As Zimmer explains in the article, the stylus as a device has been around for a long time, as far back as the earliest civilizations that wrote on clay tablets. So here’s a word that’s familiar and has a long pedigree; why are marketers of these devices today hesitant to use this word to refer to modern iterations of the device? I wonder if it has something to do with older styluses (or “styli”) that came out with the earliest touch-screen phones and devices. These devices didn’t have the capacitive touch screens of today’s devices, so you couldn’t use a finger to interact with the screen; the only way to interact with the screen was using the stylus. And those early styluses were clunky, perhaps, and have, today, come to signify an earlier era of less-responsive and -sophisticated interfaces.
Besides conjuring up a more backwards era, perhaps marketers are stung a bit by Steve Jobs’ famous criticisms of the stylus. He poked fun at manufacturers who provided plastic styluses with their devices, claiming that we all walk around with an ever-present supply of styluses in the form of our own fingers. The word that these marketers prefer to use now instead of “stylus”? Pen. (Original, right?)