I'm looking for a term to describe the phenomenon where a term with a once literal and direct meaning is carried on or borrowed to refer to something that is either only remotely related or completely unrelated to the original meaning. This is mainly related to the process whereby technology is replaced or made obsolete by newer technology, but the terminology is reused to refer to elements of the newer technology.

For example, once upon a time, typewriters were the primary means of producing documents. The paper would be fed around a drum, which sat atop a carriage that would advance from right to left with each keystroke in order to reposition the target on the page where the typebars would land. When finished typing a line on a manual typewriter, the typist would have to manually return the carriage to its home position at the right. After returning the carriage, the typist would have to feed the paper to the next line by turning the drum. Automatic typewriters would accomplish this set of tasks with a single button, known as the "return" button. The "shift" button would shift all of the typebars downward so that the uppercase letter embossed on each typebar would strike the ink ribbon instead of the lowercase letter.

Today, we don't use typewriters at all, and so we don't have any carriages to return, any physical pages to feed, or any typebars to shift, but we still have the terms "carriage return" and "line feed", which refer to specific ASCII characters, and the "shift" key.

For another example, once upon a time, carriages were the primary means of long distance transportation. To protect the driver and passengers from being covered in mud dashed up by the pulling horses, carriages would have an angled board affixed to the front of the carriage. This debris-blocking feature was known as a "dashboard".

As automobiles replaced carriages as the popular means of personal wheeled locomotion, the term "dashboard" came to be used to describe the board that sits in front of the driver and front passenger(s) in which the instrument panel and glove box are mounted. Other than the fact that it is mounted somewhere in front of the riders in a wheeled vehicle, it has no relation to the original meaning of the word "dashboard".

Is there a term that describes this phenomenon? Or rather, is there a term for a class of words such as these that have been orphaned, so to speak, from their original meanings? (Something that would satisfy the statement "The terms 'carriage return', 'line feed', and 'dashboard' are all _______s.")

EDIT: While the term "holdover" certainly applies, it does not provide the level of precision that I'm seeking. I'm looking for a term that describes these kind of terms using the kind of precision with which "skeuomorph" describes holdovers in user interfaces and aesthetics.

Perhaps the recently-coined term "skeuonym" would be most precise, were it to be commonly accepted.

marked as duplicate by Jim, Edwin Ashworth, anemone, ermanen, tchrist Nov 7 '15 at 20:59

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    I believe it's called "language". – Hot Licks Nov 6 '15 at 1:38
  • @HotLicks - We could use that answer for at least 50% of the questions here. It would save a lot of time but I don't think it would be very productive -- or popular. P.S. The term 'language' doesn't fit in the sample sentence we were given. – chasly from UK Nov 6 '15 at 1:40
  • Well, if it isn't "language" it's "etymology". Or rather, "the products of etymology". This is how a word like "glibnix" turns out to be derived from the Scottish word for purple loosestrife. – Hot Licks Nov 6 '15 at 3:26
  • 'Today, we don't use typewriters at all, and so we don't have any carriages to return, any physical pages to feed, or any typebars to shift' is incorrect. The senses you imply are obsolete are perhaps archaic. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '15 at 10:59
  • If you look at the Wikipedia article English terms with obsolete senses, you will find some true examples, and notice that Wikipedia does not use a single-word term. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '15 at 11:05

The terms 'carriage return', 'line feed', and 'dashboard' are all terms that have undergone semantic changes. Per Wikipedia:

Semantic change (or semantic shift, semantic progression, or semantic drift) is the evolution of word usage — often where the modern meaning is radically different from the original usage.

  • 1
    To be pedantic, neither of those terms fits into the sentence we were given. "The terms 'carriage return', 'line feed', and 'dashboard' are all semantic changes." (???) No they aren't. – chasly from UK Nov 6 '15 at 1:51
  • .............voilà – Ben Nov 6 '15 at 2:50
  • I always consider it cheating if you have to alter the question in order to make your answer fit it! ;-) --- Q: What's the capital of France, A: London. Really? How can you justify that? Easy, you should have asked me for the capital of England! – chasly from UK Nov 6 '15 at 3:08
  • You win. I'm going to bed. – Ben Nov 6 '15 at 3:56
  • This answers the question in the duplicate, "What is the term in linguistics when a word comes to have a new meaning over time, e.g 'wicked' is commonly used to demonstrate this?" If OP requires the subset of such words where the original meaning is obsolete (not so with any examples they give: typewriters are still in use) they need to show that there actually are such words. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 6 '15 at 10:58

I suggest anachronism

Definition of anachronism in English: noun

1A thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists

Oxford Dictionaries

Certainly the terms 'carriage return', 'line feed', and 'dashboard' are all anachronistic, even if they have new and valid meanings.

  • 1
    Don't think so. All three terms have current usage, so their use can hardly be called anachronistic today. Words that have fallen out of use are called archaic or obsolete, but in the grand tradition of the OED, they're still part of the language and may be revived. An anachronistic usage puts words not coined in mouths of persons from the wrong era. For instance, quoting Queen Victoria talking about suffragettes would be an anachronism since Vicky died five years before the word was born. – deadrat Nov 6 '15 at 2:52
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    I know what an anachronism is. Just look at the definition I quoted. Then substitute it in the sentence provided by the OP. The sentence talks about the terms, not their meanings or usage. Those terms are anachronistic -- they belong in another era but are still used. That is precisely what the OP asked for. Your introduction of the terms 'archaic' and 'obsolete' are a classic straw man -- what do they have to do with what I wrote? – chasly from UK Nov 6 '15 at 3:03
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    Let me try again. These terms are not anachronistic. They belong just fine in this era because they have currency. They might have what might be called embedded fossils -- e.g, carriage returns have nothing to do anymore with typewriter carriages. But that's different. Maybe you want to look up "straw man," too. – deadrat Nov 6 '15 at 3:40
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    The terms "dashboard", "carriage-return", and "line feed" cannot be considered anachronistic because they are not exclusively native to another time period. They remain in current use to describe automobile features and digitally-encoded characters. A true anachronism would be the use of a 1948 Rolls Royce Silver Wraith as the courtesy car for a cutting-edge international surveillance facility. – Dr. Funk Nov 9 '15 at 22:46
  • 1
    "A thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists..." In order for the terms "carriage return" and "dashboard" to not belong, linguistically speaking, in the current period, they would have to have fallen out of popular use. – Dr. Funk Nov 9 '15 at 23:24

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