0

In a book I'm reading there's the following phrase:

In the study, her computer, a top-of-the-range wafer of stainless steel, is protected by civilian security software...

My question is what does wafer mean in this piece of text?

From the context, my guess is that it's sort of extra-slim laptop. But it's still a guess.

Googling was not helpful, for the word in question has too many meanings in the world of electronics, computing etc.

  • 2
    It is descriptive of how thin the computer is, but not literally. – Weather Vane Feb 19 '19 at 18:04
  • 1
    This is called a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which something is referred to by the name of one of its parts. Wafer is the name of the silicon slices on which integrated circuits are printed, a part only of the whole computer. – mama Feb 19 '19 at 18:06
  • 4
    It is possible to also read the sentence as if wafer of stainless steel literally means that the computer was thin like a wafer and made of stainless steel. It is normal for language to be ambiguous and allow multiple interpretations. From my point of view it looks more fitting the interpretation that wafer is less plainly descriptive, and rather a name for the whole computer. – mama Feb 19 '19 at 18:14
  • 3
    @mama - It’s not likeky synecdoche. It’s more reasonable to assume your second option: the computer was very thin with a case of stainless steel. – Jim Feb 19 '19 at 20:37
  • 4
    @Jim I agree with you, it's like saying "a sliver of stainless steel". Synechdoche only really works if it is a common substitution. Calling the base unit of a desktop or tower computer the CPU might be considered as a synechdoche but, even if anyone calls a silicon chip a wafer no one calls a cased computer a wafer or a chip. – BoldBen Feb 20 '19 at 0:09
1

The quote comes from the book Codename Villanelle by Luke Jennings. The full paragraph reads

No one ever visits her here – her professional meetings take place in cafés and public parks, her sexual liaisons are mostly conducted in hotels – but if they were to do so, the apartment would bear out her cover story in every detail. In the study, her computer, a top-of-the-range wafer of stainless steel, is protected by civilian security software that a half-way skilled hacker would quickly bypass. But a scan of its contents would reveal little more than the details of a successful day-trading account, and the contents of the filing cabinet are similarly non-committal. There is no music system. Music, for Villanelle, is at best a pointless irritation and at worst a lethal danger. In silence lies safety.

The author could be using wafer as a simile between computer and wafer, to indicate that the computer was thin. He uses the same word exactly once more in another part of the novel, but that time he makes it clear that the intention is to refer to the shape.

From the Fendi shoulder bag she takes a briquet lighter, a crumpled blue cotton frock, a pair of wafer-thin sandals and a lingerie-fabric money belt.

Now, in the first quote it is also possible that wafer is being used as a substitute for computer. Instead of repeating the same word inside the same sentence, the author, as good practice recommends, opts to replace it by another word. Instead of simply using a synonym or a more general term he chooses a synecdoche. This is, calling a thing by the name of one of its parts. In this case the part is the silicon slices on which the integrate circuits are printed, called wafers. The same tricks that work in music work in literature. You are expecting a repetition or returning to the tonal, but instead the melody does an appoggiatura.

Is it intentional that the first use doesn't have the -thin? Is the author that sneaky clever? I don't know. Maybe.

Of course, being a literary work and being the two interpretations not contradictory to each other, it is perfectly possible that the intention could be to express both meanings simultaneously. There is no need for the reader to make an exclusive choice between the two.


The author confirmed, though, that

enter image description here

|improve this answer|||||
1

I must disagree with the other answers and comments which say wafer is a synecdoche referring to the substrate microchips are cut from. The term may have been chosen here because it is reminiscent of high technology, but I wouldn't think the intent was to evoke a physical comparison. Silicon wafers are a manufacturing precursor, not a finished good; there aren't any wafers inside your computer. They are moreover a precursor to only one component of the larger whole, and knowledge of their very existence is anyway not widely held outside of those working or interested in computer hardware.

I would no sooner refer to a computer as a wafer on account of its chip as I would call a car an ingot on account of its metal body. This goes especially because the quote says it is a wafer of stainless steel, whereas chip wafers are silicon, making this perhaps akin to calling a car a cowhide.


Wafer is more likely a reference to the computer being thin/flat, light, and stiff, as in the common expression wafer-thin. The OED notes that this sense is commonly ascribed to comparison to the sealing wafer, a gelatin or gum disc used for sealing envelopes, but actually originated in the thin, light, crisp bread whose name shares an origin with waffle and the now-obsolete wafron.

Image of a wafer dessert by MaxStraeten, Morguefile license

It might also be round, like communion wafers (a flat bread manufactured for use in Christian rituals), wafer seals (the transparent plastic adhesive tabs applied to retail packaging), or other kinds of wafers. The Dutch wafel (whence stroopwafel) is cognate.

Wikimedia Commons image of stroopwafels

I think any reference to shape is seconary, however. If one imagines a typical desktop computer in an office as being a block of plastic or aluminum, it need only be very thin or flat to seem like a piece of futuristic wizardry.

|improve this answer|||||
-1

Wafer, in this context, refers to the "wafer" that is used as the substrate for computer chips. See these references
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wafer_(electronics)
https://www.britannica.com/technology/computer-chip

|improve this answer|||||
  • That would be a wafer in steel (box). A wafer on steel would crack and a wafer of steel is not a semiconductor. – AmI Feb 19 '19 at 19:15
  • It sounds like SciFi to me. If I were going to make a small computer, I'd definitely consider a wafer of steel for it. Small, Strong enough to not break like a silicon wafer. – Scottie H Feb 19 '19 at 19:25
  • As your own links show, a computer chip is made out of semiconductor material (silicon), not steel. – michael.hor257k Feb 19 '19 at 22:28
  • In SciFi, a chip can be made out of anything. I could even make a steel wafer, with a semiconductor coating on top of it. I have seen real life computer chips printing on things that are not silicon. – Scottie H Feb 19 '19 at 22:39

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.