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The word of the week is ‘computer’, 1920s fashion

August 11, 2016

Matthew Wright

look_it_up_T httpwww.clipartpal.comclipart_pdeducationdictionary_10586.htmlThe  Oxford English Dictionary, prepared between 1884 and 1928 for the Clarendon Press, is a wonderful book. As is its 1971 Compact edition, which is the whole thing in two volumes – unabridged and complete, but rendered down in micro-printing. You need a magnifying glass to read it. I use it reasonably often.

One of the words in it is ‘computer’. Which, back then, meant ‘one who computes’, ‘a person employed to make calculations in an observatory’. The assiduous researchers at the OED project traced the word back to 1646 with some eighteenth century usages by Horace Walpole.

The only place I’ve seen it used in that context is E E ‘Doc’ Smith’s Spacehounds of IPC, written in 1930, where the hero, Percy ‘Steve’ Stevens, worked as – well, you’ve guessed it, a computer.

I should add that among the OED’s staff in the 1920s was one J R…

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