I’m in the middle of revising a draft of a research paper that I’ve written for a class on writing theory about authority and authorship in digital rhetoric. (Quite an appropriate place to discuss the topic, although substantial discussion will probably come much later if at all.) My thesis is that digital media have changed many things about rhetoric, and I examine these changes in the context of the paradigms of three major rhetorical theories (James Berlin’s epistemological theories).

When adding a section to discuss the similarities between analog and digital rhetorics, I was struck by the mental association (and subsequent disassociation) that I encountered when trying to make a strong rhetorical point.

The title of the section was “Analog as analogue,” which I meant to be a nice summation of my thesis. It hit me that the statement could seem rather devoid of comparison when taken at face value, since analog and analogue are merely variants (the former U.S., the latter British) of the same word. The statement is much like saying “Color as colour” in terms of literal semantics. As a result, I added a footnote (and might I add, I love footnotes dearly) explaining that the statement was a concise version of my thesis.

What’s interesting to me about this is that it appears to be a case where, as a result of seeing one spelling in a very strict context, a contextual association with one variant occurred and caused the disassociation of the other variant for the more context-specific usage. In other words, I have observed ‘analog’ used in a very limited context – that of technology, as an antonym to digital – and so have retained that spelling, common to my dialect of English, and limited it to use in that context alone. Then, since I had need for a word to use more broadly, I co-opted ‘analogue’ – not native to my dialect and hence more context-neutral – as the word which I would use when talking about analogy in a broad sense rather than in the specific context of technology.

I wonder how often this happens with language. I can think of at least one other word whose literal semantics would seem to make it essentially synonymous with its variant but with a context-specific usage: unsecure (as opposed to insecure). Both words mean basically the same thing – “not secure” – but ‘unsecure’ is almost always used of impersonal things, objects, or systems (especially in technology – a WiFi network without any sort of protection, for instance, is ‘unsecure’ or possibly ‘unsecured’), whereas ‘insecure’ is used of personal things, especially when talking about one’s personal feelings, emotions, or state of being (e.g. “He is insecure about his receding hairline”). (Since each has a specific range of contexts, there isn’t – amusingly enough – a direct analogy to the previous example, but it’s close enough to demonstrate the point, I think.)

I’ve talked before about how language seems to have some things in common with evolution in that it often becomes greatly speciated – with a very specific function to a context or setting – and this would appear to support my argument. It’s a very interesting way to think about language, and I find this example to be a fascinating case regardless.

Addendum: It occurred to me that dialog/dialogue is another example of this, where dialogue would be used for a literary context and dialog for (again) a technical context, specifically to describe a box that opens asking for input (a dialog box).