[Ads-l] "Human computer" as retronym

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Sat Jan 28 20:36:59 EST 2017

Just saw “Hidden Figures”, which recounts the role of three black women (Katherine Gobel Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn) who worked as “computers”, i.e. mathematicians and engineers, at NASA during the height of the “space race” in 1961.  IBM mainframes were evidently gradually being phased in at that time, so there were computers (human) and electronic computers.  Cf. OED _computer_ 

1. A person who makes calculations or computations; a calculator, a reckoner; spec. a person employed to make calculations in an observatory, in surveying, etc. Now chiefly hist.
2. A device or machine for performing or facilitating calculation.
3. a. An electronic device (or system of devices) which is used to store, manipulate, and communicate information, perform complex calculations, or control or regulate other devices or machines, and is capable of receiving information (data) and of processing it in accordance with variable procedural instructions (programs or software)...

“Chiefly hist.” Indeed—I’m sure I wasn’t the only viewer who kept interpreting the label as a metaphor for sense 3 “computer" (“She’s a regular computer”) instead of recognizing it as a historically accurate use of sense 1. Descriptions and reviews of the movie describe the three women and their co-workers as “human computers” or “women computers”, which would now typically be understood as suggesting that they were so good at computing or math that they rivaled the ability of real (i.e. electronic) computers, sense 3.  (Semi-spoiler: a sign outside a room that reads “Colored Computers” does *not* signal that the room contains a bunch of proto-iMacs.)  

But “human computer” or “women computers” in the reviews is actually a retronym (along the lines of "human poll” or “human translation") to help specify sense 1, not a metaphor for sense 3.  Senses 2 and 3 have essentially archaized sense 1.  


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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