Personal organisers aren't afraid of mice

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"Have you noticed the way that people are becoming things these days?" said the lexicologist to us as I came into the pub.

I say "lexicologist" because that's how he likes to think of himself. We call him the "pedant" when he's not around. Actually, we call him the "pedant" when he is around, because he is a pedant, and takes it as a compliment. He is one of those individuals who have the knack of bringing a conversation to a halt with a gentle bit of hair-splitting.

You know the kind. Just when the conversation is spinning along nicely, and someone says that everything is hunky dory, this man will say: "Odd word, `hunky dory'. Wonder where it comes from?" And everyone pretends to be interested in this stunningly uninteresting point, whereas they should tell him to go away and not come back until he has looked it up in a dictionary, and when he comes back, not to tell anyone what he has found out.

I sighed and said: "How do you mean, people are becoming things these days?"

"Well," said the pedant, "I was sitting at my word processor this morning and was switching on my printer to print out something I had written when it occurred to me that in the old days a printer was not a machine at all. It was a person. It was a person with dirty clothes staggering around carrying piles of print carefully tied up with string because all the letters were separate. But say the word printer nowadays and people see a machine. Say the word `trainer' and people think of shoes. A trainer should be a person who goes running with a boxer or shouts at people in a gymnasium, but it's not. It's a bloody shoe."

"There's something in that," said a man called Jim. "After all, when I say I'm going to consult my personal organiser, nobody expects me to turn round to talk to a secretary. All I'm going to do is press a few knobs on a machine."

"There was a time," I said, "when a sprinter was someone who ran very fast, but now it always seems to be a small suburban train.

"A copier used to be someone who copied things. Now it's just a machine that makes photocopies."

"Actually," said a woman behind me. "I think a person who copied things was called a copyist," but she spoke so softly that only I heard her.

"We are agreed, then, that it is a strange modern habit to take activities away from humans and give them to gadgets," said the pedant.

"No," said the landlord, who always like to get into arguments at a crucial stage, "I don't think it's modern at all. I think it has been happening for a long time. What about runners and sleepers and drivers?"

"Runners?" I said. "You mean, beans?"

"Drawers slide on runners," he said. "Trains go over sleepers. Golfers use drivers. Have been for a long time. Nothing new about it."

"What about rulers?" said Jim. "For a long time, rulers were kings and queens. They were people who ruled. Then along came bits of wood a foot long marked out in inches, and they were called rulers, too, but do you suppose the kings and queens got upset about it? Do you suppose they resented sharing their name with a bit of wood?"

"Jumper," said the lexicologist.

"Pardon?" we said.

"Why is a pullover called a jumper? In what way does it jump?

"In what way does it sweat?" said Jim.

"Pardon?" said the lexicologist.

"A pullover is also called a sweater as well as a jumper. But why is it called either? Does a pullover sweat? Does it jump?"

"It's not just humans," said the landlord, looking again for the last word. "It's animals as well that are being turned into things."

"Like moles being turned into your cottage pies?" said someone, and everyone roared with laughter. Don't you just love English pub humour?

"No," said the landlord, who did not love English pub humour. "I was thinking of things like mice. There was a time when a mouse was a small rodent. Now, it is the movable bit on the front of a computer that you fiddle to move the cursor."

"Will someone please please PLEASE tell me what this conversation is about?" I cried. They all turned and looked at me.

"We were trying to see how long we could keep talking while avoiding the subject of the American election, indeed any politics," said the lexicologist sternly.

"That's hunky dory by me," I said apologetically.

"Hunky dory. Now there's an odd word," said the pedant, and we were away again.

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